My name is Keith Webb and my business is called Aiden Associates Ltd. I provide business advisory services to a wide-ranging portfolio of clients – from craft brewers to IT businesses and hospitality service firms. I’ve even worked with indie rock band Wolf Alice. Like millions of people working through their own limited company, I find myself ignored, overlooked and left to fall between the cracks of the government’s inadequate Coronavirus support – something which led me to join the campaign group, #ForgottenLtd, which seeks parity of support for the freelancers, contractors and small business owners who the Chancellor has deserted during our greatest moment of need.
When the initial lockdown hit in March, most of my clients were badly affected by the pandemic. And whilst that had an obvious effect on my income, the fact that I also had to ‘shield’ didn’t help the situation. It was when I was researching various pivot options for clients that the startling gaps in support announced by the Chancellor began to emerge.
The initial response to the Coronavirus support packages was, I think, almost universally welcomed, but as always with policy, the devil is in the detail. After a few weeks, more and more of my clients, directors of their own limited companies, said they weren’t able to access the same funding as many others. This seemed, at the time, to likely be a crack in the support – probably driven by the haste in setting the packages up. But, as soon became clear, these cracks were not accidental – they were deliberately created to force many freelancers, contractors and independent consultants down them.
In my corporate career, I had a track record of, when riled by something, being a bit of a campaigner for justice. I was often on a mission. The biggest win I was involved in was the campaign to get the government to act on the issue of duty fraud in the UK alcohol industry. The level of this tax in the UK is one of the highest in the world and that offers a massive opportunity for those who choose to find ways of not paying it. I was Trading Director for Bargain Booze, a 500+ strong franchise off-licence chain when the scale of the fraud became apparent.
It was badly damaging to our franchisees, who couldn’t compete with the prices. By 2010, driven by the duty ‘escalator’ in each budget, 80% of the price of a bottle of spirits was going to the Treasury. A whole infrastructure of criminality, from production through logistics and wholesale to retail shops, had resulted in about 15% of the UK’s alcohol sales by volume being controlled by organised crime. It took time, but via engagement with the police, HMRC and, crucially, by getting enough MPs to take notice, a system was put in place (AWRS) that is now saving the exchequer £10billion a year.
I tell you all of this for a reason – to show you that change is possible. Campaigns can be won.
But back to the current scandal in Westminster. And it is a scandal. For a while, I became one of those people ranting on Twitter (sometimes it’s good to vent). I’m a member of The Business Network Chester and through it, I became aware of even more people left behind by the Chancellor. I knew that as a lone voice I had no chance of influencing much, if anything, to be honest, even though I had engaged with my local MP and he had written a strongly worded letter to Mr Sunak. Before he did this, however, I had to explain that the Chancellor’s view of limited company directors – that we’re all tax dodgers, fat cats and fraudsters who pay ourselves in ways far too complicated for support to work – is unfounded and altogether wrong.
Fortunately, the team at #ForgottenLtd spotted that I was very active in challenging this attack on the small business community and invited me to contribute to their strategy group and social media activity – in other words, help them make our argument – that limited company directors deserve proper government support through the Coronavirus crisis – impossible to ignore.
As I write this we are in the process of contacting every Conservative MP, advising them of the number of #ForgottenLtd members in their constituency versus the size of their majority. The campaign is not party political, although simple numbers mean we have to focus on turning Conservative MPs. Alongside this we have developed important relationships with leading trade bodies, lobbying groups and influential MPs – the outspoken David Davis being one of those.
It seems obvious now that the government has taken the cover provided by the Coronavirus pandemic to introduce this denial of support as part of the wider Treasury move to, as it sees it, address a consequence of having a versatile and nimble workforce outside of PAYE.
Somewhere, a bean-counter with a vague knowledge of Excel spreadsheets has extrapolated the amount of tax being paid by contractors and consultants and said “look at the benefit if we get a big chunk of that onto PAYE!” – hence the current support squeeze and next year’s needless IR35 reform.
Steve Barclay MP, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, said at the dispatch box a couple of weeks ago “just move on” when faced with yet another question from one of the growing number of MPs supporting #ForgottenLtd. But we won’t. A few months back, a contributor to Conservative Home described the Chancellor’s ongoing refusal to engage with this issue as ‘a political own goal ‘ and ‘a moral misstep’.
With around 3million small business owners affected by the decision to deny parity of support plus their 7.5million employees, you can see why it’s a political own goal. 10.5million is a lot of voters. Of course, it is, to most people, immoral to try and sneak in this cull of the contractor community just at this time of maximum financial, and thanks to Mr Sunak’s policy, mental health stress.
#ForgottenLtd welcomes supporters, whether they be personally affected or just outraged by a policy that many commentators are calling ‘economically incoherent’. This is a polite way of putting it, given the stark reality is that millions of freelancers, contractors and independent workers stand on the edge of financial disaster. In the coming months, as the Coronavirus crisis deepens, we will continue to make our voices heard and make it clear to the Chancellor that he must right this wrong before it’s too late.
If you feel as strongly as I do about the cause, you can learn more about who we are, what we stand for and join our campaign here.