Budget 2017: booming self-employed workforce hit by tax hike

Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond making his Budget statement to MPs in the House of Commons.
Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond making his Budget statement to MPs in the House of Commons.

Philip Hammond's Spring Budget has hammered the self-employed. He outlined that increasing national insurance payments for people who work for themselves was a matter of fairness - so that people receive the same pay for the same work as one another - regardless of their employment status, but there are those who disagree.

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Hammond made his announcement, firmly rooted in the argument that tax systems have to be fair. He explained his reasoning that someone making £32,000 from their employer would generate £6,170 in national insurance contributions, while someone who is self employed generates just £2,300.

He said that this meant people were opting for self-employed status in order to reduce the taxes they pay.

Historically, he went on, this was reflected in lower state pensions for the self-employed. However, with the new flat rate state pension, this technically enables the self employed to build up the same state pension, and so there is less justification for the difference in contributions.

Therefore, he hiked Class 4 NICs for the self employed from 9% to 10% in 2018 and 11% in 2019. Hargreaves Lansdown has calculated that a self-employed worker earning £30,000 will pay £282 more National Insurance in 2019 than in 2016.

He added that he appreciated that there were differences in the parental benefits available to each group, but that he would be consulting over how to equalise this over the summer.

Sam Dumitriu, Head of Projects at the Adam Smith Institute, agrees that this is completely fair, explaining: "It's right to bring National Insurance on the self-employed in line with that paid by employees. The current system is in effect a subsidy of £1,240, and although the self-employed do have mildly reduced access to some contributory benefits, given the choice almost everyone would plump for the £1,240."

To protect the self-employed on low incomes, Hammond also made it clear that self-employed people earning less than £16,250 would actually pay less under the new system.

Arguably, he is also disincentivising self-employment, to bring more people back into the world of employment - ensuring the government doesn't miss out on tax, and offering more security for workers.


However, not everyone supports the move. There are those who argue that self-employment isn't necessarily driven by individuals who want to bring their tax payments down. In fact it is often not a matter of choice at all, but one of necessity as they cannot find employment.

Maike Currie, investment director for personal investing at Fidelity International says: "It's disappointing that a Chancellor who once worked for himself has announced such a tax blitz on the incomes of the self-employed. A key driver behind the surge in self-employment was the 2008 financial crisis and the tough labour market left in its wake."

Self-employed workers already suffer from the fact that they don't have security of employment, security of income in quiet times, or an hourly rate. Tim Walford-Fitzgerald, Private Client Principal, HW Fisher & Company, commented: "The regular wage slip is a world apart from the increased risks and uncertainty involved in running your own business. These tax changes do not reflect the practical distinctions between employment and self-employment."

There's also the matter of the 'equality of benefits' that Hammond refers to. He has identified that the self-employed don't have the same parental benefits. It's also worth noting that they don't have sick pay or holiday pay either. They are not entitled to public holidays off work, or compassionate leave. There's no auto-enrolment for them either - with its free employer contribution: if they have any cash to save for their future - they're in it on their own.

Of course, self-employed people can take a six week holiday whenever they fancy, and show up for work at midday in their pyjamas - technically. However, most self-employed people are afraid to take more than a few weeks of maternity leave - let alone an extended holiday, and make themselves available in every waking hour, for fear they will lose valuable clients.

In so many ways it's impossible to compare the working lives of the self-employed with the employed. So it seems odd to choose the one advantage they have over employed people as the one variable that needs to be equalised.

If Hammond is doing this in order to bring more people back into employment, you have to ask whether he is trying to hold back the tide. All the evidence suggests we are moving to a world where the vast majority of people will work for several different companies, and most businesses will get by with very few employees and a vast number of resources they can call on at a moment's notice. Hammond's extra taxation will do nothing at all to stop this process. It will simply make life harder and more expensive for those people forced to work in this new economy.

And that hardly sounds fair.

Finally, as John O'Connell, Chief Executive of the TaxPayers' Alliance, said if you want to make things fair there was a way of doing this that would avoid hurting anyone. He says: "It is good to try and equalise national insurance payments between employees and the self-employed, but this should be done by cutting rates rather than hiking taxes on entrepreneurs."

But what do you think? Is Hammond being more fair, or has he just found a way to hike an income-based tax without technically breaking the manifesto promise not to do so? Let us know in the comments.