One of the main reasons why there was so much opposition to the proposal in last week’s Spring Budget to raise National Insurance (NI) payments for the self-employed was that they generally earn less than their counterparts in direct employment.
Not only that, but accepting that the primary purpose of NI is to contribute to the costs of unemployment benefits, sickness pay, holiday and maternity/paternity leave, those in self-employment are entitled to none of these. Therefore, the argument that the measure was aimed at introducing more fairness into NI contributions between the two groups was seen as disingenuous.
According to research from the Resolution Foundation published in October last year, the self-employed earn less than they did in 1994-95. At the same time, they now make up almost 5 million of the workforce and their numbers have risen by 45% since 2001-02.
The research also found that the proportion of self-employed business owners with their own staff had fallen.
Who are the self-employed?
To bring greater clarity to the discussion it is important to define the different types of self-employment.
Firstly, as businesses have sought to reduce their overheads on payroll they have seized the opportunities offered by zero-hours contracts and outsourcing work, which has relieved them of their responsibility for contributing to employees’ NI, leave entitlements and pensions.
Consequently, many of the self-employed are workers who cannot be distinguished from employees such as delivery drivers, taxi drivers, cleaners, builders and IT support workers, who might previously have been directly employed.
There is a second group of self-employed, those who have started their own businesses, whether as sole traders, running micro-businesses or larger and these belong to the category of SMEs. They can provide a range of goods and services from plumbing and heating to house renovation to website development to business consultancy. Some, but not all, may be budding entrepreneurs.
In some ways, it is irrelevant whether their employment status has come about by choice or compulsion as businesses have sought to reduce their payroll costs and obligations.
The main trigger, according to the Resolution Foundation, was the 2008 Financial Crash. It led to an increase in the numbers of the self-employed, introducing more competition in the demand for their goods or services, leading to a decline in both hourly rates and the working hours available to them.
So, competition and the need to cover the costs that would otherwise be borne by employers may account for a proportion of the lower pay of the self-employed, but another consideration is that many are also responsible for the purchase, running and upkeep of any vehicles and equipment needed for their work. Not all of this may qualify as a tax-deductible business expense. Not only this but they must cover the costs of administering their business such as maintaining accounts, filing tax returns and business insurance as well as covering professional, compliance and training costs.
Closing the NIC gap is not so fair after all.