When veteran broadcaster and journalist Liz Kershaw received a letter in 2009 from the BBC, it contained a line that “the BBC will only engage on-air talent for long term commitments of engagements if their services are provided through a service company (or partnership).” The letter – contained within written evidence provided to the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee enquiry into BBC pay in late March – was hardly a bolt from the blue.
The BBC’s engagement practices have been subject to intense media scrutiny since at least 2012, when the public broadcaster conducted a major review of its freelance model.
When asked by the committee chair, Damian Collins MP, whether she was “coerced into signing documents” by the BBC, Ms Kershaw replied, “Yes, I was initially”.
For those who have been closely following the implementation of the changes made to IR35 in April last year, the evidence presented at the committee provided insight on multiple levels.
Aside from the revelations that presenters were “coerced” by the BBC into forming companies, the evidence centrally legitimises major concerns raised by organisations, including IPSE, that the IR35 changes are having a detrimental effect on public services.
“What we saw before the committee in March was further evidence of the chaos caused by the government’s ill-judged policy to transfer the IR35 burden from the contractor to the public authority which hires them,” Andrew Chamberlain, IPSE’s deputy director of policy and external affairs said.
“This has resulted in highly skilled, professional contractors fleeing the public sector, robbing it of vital specialist skills, damaging public services and leading to delays in major projects.
“IPSE has been very concerned for some time now that the changes may be wreaking havoc in the NHS and other public-sector agencies.
“Following the changes to IR35 last year, there has been widespread concern that some public authorities are pushing all off payroll engagements into IR35 unfairly.”
The tool the government’s own website says that Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs relies upon to determine IR35 status – the
Check Employment Status for Tax (CEST) tool – was also criticised at the committee enquiry. “CEST is not fit for purpose. It absolutley does not apply to the jobs we do... After using CEST, my result was indeterminate, and so the BBC took the decision that I should be employed for tax purposes,” another presenter Kirsty Lang told the committee.
Such observations are appropriate, according to Mr Chamberlain.
“The criticisms of the CEST tool made at the committee hearing are entirely accurate.
“The tool cannot be relied upon to make correct determinations which is why many organisations feel forced to take a blanket approach – unfairly deeming all off-payroll engagements inside IR35.”
Concerns about the tax liability of BBC presenters came to the fore this year, with a tribunal determining that former ‘Look North’ onair talent Christa Ackroyd fell inside IR35.
The BBC announced in March that individuals will now be able to ask for a review of their cases through the Centre for Effective Dispute Resolution.
By Chris Piggott-McKellar