John Smeaton was one of the UK’s most famous engineers who designed and built canals, harbours and the iconic Eddystone Lighthouse.
Born in Leeds in 1724 he also features in a hit song by the Kaiser Chiefs.
In the heart of Westminster a room dedicated to this giant of engineering hosted the first ever IPSE Policy Conference, and how Smeaton, whose portrait glowered down from the polished oak panelling, would have loved this prestigious event.
Sue Lawley OBE, the TV favourite who has turned poise and professionalism into her trademark, hosted the morning session. Her opening task was to introduce a video link to Downing Street where the Prime Minister, David Cameron, speaking from the Cabinet Room, emphasised his support for the self-employed saying his Government had and would continue to support and encourage the self-employed. He also underlined how important the IPSE Policy Conference was to the millions of self-employed in this vital and growing sector.
With his purple tie matching IPSE’s corporate colours the PM went on to pronounce:
People have turned their living rooms into workshops, their kitchens into offices and their bedrooms into stock rooms to be their own bosses. I say, let’s back the self-employed and be proud of the sole traders of this great nation.
IPSE Chairman James Collings echoed the Prime Minister’s praise for the sector and underlined the importance by highlighting that the latest figures show that the self-employed community contributed 109 billion pounds to the economy.
Sue then introduced the five panellists looking at the tax system and posed the question did it reflect the way we work in the 21st century? The panel consisted of:
Chris Sanger from EY, who not only survived working with several Chancellors of the Exchequer, but lived to tell the tale.
Anita Monteith from ICAEW. Yes, I know ICAEW seems a mouthful, but in reality it is the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales.
John Midgley, Senior Manager of Global Public Policy from the sponsor of the event, Intuit QuickBooks UK.
The unflappable John Whiting, who leads the Office of Tax Simplification (OTS).
And, just to show that Hector does not walk about with a bowler hat, brolly and a bulging brief case, there was Adrian Dixon from HMRC.
The next 45 minutes were electric, with five tax experts showing they were at the top of their game and all prepared to accept change and, in some cases, demand change.
Adrian Dixon was incredibly frank and open when he looked at the problems faced by the self-employed sector and HMRC. He made it plain that he understood the frustrations felt within the freelance community. He was also frank when dealing with an issue raised from the floor saying that incorporating a business was not done for tax purposes.
John Whiting, an old and trusted ally of IPSE, announced that OTS had been asked by the Government to develop some work with the less than exotic name of Sole Enterprise Personal Assets or SEPA.
John explained the idea centres around providing some form of limited liability to unincorporated businesses.
But a word that has featured large in the freelance lexicon for many a year featured in the debate: Complexity!
Anita Monteith felt strongly that complexity stemmed from the taxpayer having too many choices while Chris Sanger argued that fairness and simplicity are at opposite ends of a spectrum. Any tax system that strives for fairness will inevitably become complex as it adapts to the specific circumstances of different businesses and individuals. John Whiting agreed that fairness and simplicity often pull against each other but noted that the system cannot be considered fair if no one understands it.
So should we rip up the present tax system or get a fresh sheet of paper? You would need to chop down a Norwegian forest to produce enough paper for it. We asked the audience at the event to use their high-tech voting panels to answer the following question:“Would you support a complete rewrite of the tax system?” Of the respondents, 68% voted yes; 32% voted no.
There was a consensus that the digitalisation of tax returns was around the corner and as the event was held round the corner from the Treasury that was fair enough.
John Midgley thought the overall digital concept would be well supported but emphasised that we need to have correct and easy to use software available.
The audience was overwhelmingly supportive when it came to the vote with 87% saying the Government is right to pursue MTD. Now that doesn’t mean Match of the Day, but indeed Making Tax Digital.
Just as well we were in agreement with the Government because next up were MPs and business superstar Julie Dean OBE. In Julie’s case the OBE should stand for Obviously a Brilliant Entrepreneur.
Julie explained the background to her independent review of the self-employed in the UK. The founder of the Cambridge Satchel Company said:
“I was honoured to have been chosen by the Prime Minister to conduct this review of self-employment in the UK. I was struck by the diversity of this group. As part of the research I engaged directly with many individuals through an online survey as well as through holding extensive discussions with trade and professional organisations representing hundreds of thousands of members.”
Julie is fast becoming a powerful advocate for this sector calling for cuts in red tape, trying to make things easier for the growing number of women moving into the self-employed sector, especially on the issue of maternity pay as well as calling for better education at an earlier age.
Joining her on stage was the charming and quietly effective Conservative MP for Salisbury, John Glen, and the talented and highly rated Scottish Nationalist MP, Hannah Bardell, the SNP’s shadow Westminster Group Leader (Business, Innovation and Skills).
Peter Kyle, the Labour MP for Hove and Portslade, was a late call off. Seemingly a vote of great national importance kept him at the Commons. The vote, perhaps, should Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn wear a tie or go tieless to dinner?
The inimitable Doug Henderson, the former Minister for Europe in Tony Blair’s government, replaced him and, like many late substitutes, played a blinder.
The 70 minutes flashed past as Julie and the politicians debated how the freelance sector could best be supported and, believe it or not, there was a great deal of unity.
Unity amongst politicians? If this catches on we could make Speaker John Bercow redundant, or is that just wishful thinking?
In his video message the Prime Minister had said remaining in the EU was important for Britain, for business and for the self-employed. From the Brexit camp and from the ‘stay’ camp evenhanded and apolitical IPSE presented both sides of the argument.
On the Euro ‘stay’ side was Laura Sandys, looking like a latter day Queen Boudicca with her flowing locks tied up ready for battle. The Brexit chap who was brave enough to try and stand up to Boudicca was Paul Scully, the Conservative MP for Sutton and Cheam.
Boudicca had the chariots in overdrive to scythe down Scully. She believes the EU is one of the greatest political achievements of modern times and the UK is at the heart of it.
And the winner was…? Well, both put up a great fight but the polls taken before and after the debate showed a swing to the ‘stay’ campaign.
The last time I had seen Anna Soubry stride through Westminster she was wearing a Russian style fur cap and looked like an extra from the film Anna Karenina. But can this lady move; it is a wonder she doesn’t get speeding tickets at the speed she storms through the streets of Westminster!
This time no Russian hat but a black elegant suit. The UK’s first Minister for Small Business to attend Cabinet thanked her advisors for the speech and notes they had prepared for her then immediately binned them and just spoke from the heart. She is a formidable lady and the self-employed are lucky to have her in their corner. As Sue Lawley said in her intro, “This lady means business.”
Sitting down with Sue Lawley there was a fascinating Q&A session between the two highly articulate ladies whose early career paths had mirrored each other’s. Both had left university, both journalists and both joining local newspapers, before both moved on to television presenting the evening news.
The minister felt there had been much achieved by the Government for the self-employed but still more was needed to help what she considers a vital part of the economy. She talked from the heart about the highs and lows of freelancing, and warned those in the sector that they must have the vision to think about laying aside funds for their pensions.
Her message was best summed up with bold claim that:
“I am open to all suggestions and all ideas.”
Quizzed on the establishment of a small business commissioner, the minister said the really important function would be looking at how to tackle the issue of late payments, and added the commissioner would be responsible for a one-stop shop website aimed at small businesses. The one question left up in the air about the commissioner was about his, or her, gnashers. Would they have teeth?
"It is a disgrace that we have the 20th best broadband in the world. This must be a priority."
The afternoon session was hosted by the financial journalist, Declan Curry, who once presented the popular BBC Working Lunch show with charm, knowledge and a good dollop of humour on the side.
The first afternoon session brought five freelancers together to debate –, and how they debated – on what it takes to succeed as a freelancer.
The group consisted of Paul Allington, winner of IPSE’s Freelancer of the Year; Sarah Dawkins, runner up in the Freelancer of the Year awards and a freelance nurse; Kelly Gilmour-Grassam, freelance copywriter and winner of the Aspire section of the IPSE awards; Alan Midgly, a freelance construction worker; and Michel Syrett, an academic and freelance journalist.
In a lively debate, one of the more interesting topics concerned loneliness and Michel Syrett was very brave and moving when he talked about depression and how it impacted on his career. Five inspiring freelancers all with different goals, and from Paul Allington a refreshing confession:
"I find tea is key to my business. Talking business over tea really works."
The vital Labour vote on whether or not Jeremy Corbyn should wear a tie or not must be over because we had a Labour MP in our midst. Bill Esterson, wearing a bright red tie (just in case you thought he had slipped in from the Lib Dems), is MP for Sefton Central and Shadow Minister for Business, Innovation and Skills. Bill talked about freelancers and admitted he knew one rather well… his wife.
As an MP for a constituency where 18 people had died in the Hillsborough disaster, Bill took time to comment on the inquest judgments that had been announced hours earlier. A poignant moment for a politician who had campaigned for justice.
“Labour can deliver for business” was Bill’s powerful message, but he was scathing about the lack of broadband saying:
"It is a disgrace that we have the 20th best broadband in the world. This must be a priority."
The last session of the day was a Dragon’s Den-style forum with small business gurus Emma Jones, Penny Haslem and Professor Andrew Burke. Pitching their imaginative new projects were:
Dr. Roberto Camerani, from Brighton Fuse, who called for freelancer-specific bank accounts.
Matt Dowling from the Freelancer Club, who called for the Government to back his #NOFREEWORK campaign.
Jane Bowles, PR consultant, who pitched for childcare facilities in work hubs.
David Jackson, from Hudson Contract, who called for an overhaul in training provision for freelance construction workers.
With the dragons deciding whether or not they were ‘in’ or ‘out’ there was, as there had been throughout the day, audience participation with guests voting on the projects. The voting showed that Matt’s incredibly well received pitch won most support from the dragons and the floor.
David Morris, the Conservative MP for Morecambe and Lunesdale and the UK’s first Self-employed Ambassador, spoke with the passion of someone who was self-employed before entering politics and gave this commitment:
“I will be your champion in Parliament.”
All that was left to do in this landmark day for IPSE was a vote of thanks from the organisation’s CEO, Chris Bryce. Underlining the stunning figure of £192 billion that the self-employed has contributed to the UK economy, Chris was right to emphasise that IPSE listens to its members, and the politicians, decision makers and the business community listen to IPS
Throughout the day John Smeaton’s grim face looked down with interest from its heavy gold-gilded frame.
One Great George Street has been used in the films Bridget Jones’s Diary, Ghandi and Mr. Bean. But had this grand old Edwardian building, or indeed John Seaton, ever seen such a talented cast?
By Jim Cassidy