The Taylor review may hint that the outcry over the gig economy is a storm in a teacup, but it acknowledges that the tax system isn’t keeping up to speed, says Robert Bruce
This article was first published in the September 2017 UK edition of Accounting and Business magazine.
There are two ways to deal with change: to jerk into action over some glaring problem and fling clichés at it, or to recognise what is happening and then go with the flow and enhance the outcomes. The latter is what the recently published Good Work: the Taylor Review of Modern Working Practices does. By simply recognising what is going on, then looking at it in as analytical and sensible a way as possible, it offers a wonderfully clear map of the way work is going.
The report even navigates through the current obsession with the status of employees – or gig economy freedom-fighters, or whoever. Its categories ought to solve the difficulty of dealing with people in an employment context where much is changing – although even here it makes it clear that the panic over a changing world is overblown.
It points out that the traditional full-time employee model still makes up most of the UK labour market, and it has hardly moved as a proportion over the past 20 years – falling from 64% of the market to 63% over that time. Likewise, despite the hysteria, the gig economy seems far from a system of modern slavery. The Taylor review commissioned research and found that 73% of these workers were satisfied with their ability to be their own boss, and 75% with their ability to set their own hours.
So the people at the sharp end seem to be more satisfied with how it all works than those who are viewing it from afar and often with an interest in maintaining the status quo.
The Taylor review is about making sense of what we can see. As the Law Society said in its submission to the study: ‘The situation doesn’t need to be this complicated.’ And certainly there are large sections of the review that look at how business life is developing and point out how many ways of making life easier are emerging.
In a small acknowledgment of how life now works, it looks at the tax gap relating to the hidden economy. The review records it as around £6.2bn in 2013-14, representing 18% of the total tax gap. Much of this, it says, is down to a culture of paying self-employed people in cash.
Yet life has changed. Go into a pub or coffee shop and probably most customers are paying by card. There is no reason why small payments to gardeners or window cleaners, for example, shouldn’t be made in the same way. It is a simple change that fits a social trend in payments – it is easy to achieve. As the review says: ‘Moving over time to cashless government-accredited platforms for the payment of self-employed labour would shift the default significantly, meaning only those who intended to would participate in the informal economy. Fully implementing this move could reap several billions in additional revenues.’
The Taylor review applies this sort of reasoning, based on where change is leading, to many parts of the world of work. It is particularly perceptive on the importance of apprenticeships, for example.
And it would be nice to think that the government’s improvements in its Making Tax Digital proposals owed something to coming just days after the review’s publication. For all the supposed fury at the proposals, the review’s research found that 72% of gig economy workers would welcome an online tool to support them in paying the right tax. Making Tax Digital, it says, ‘is clearly a step in the right direction’.
And this is true of so much of the review’s thinking. Business life could be simpler. It is the political process that stops it being so.
Robert Bruce is an accountancy commentator and journalist
"Moving to cashless platforms for the payment of self-employed labour would shift the default significantly"