Covid-19 Support Response – Update

In my previous post I stated that ‘As Directors we are not able to furlough ourselves and therefore would not be eligible for the Governments Covid-19 Job Retention Scheme‘.

I also said ‘the details of these measures are still coming out and there is a great deal of confusion so what I’m about to write may well change going forward‘ – and it has (although a bit quicker than I expected).

If you don’t know who Martin Lewis is then check out the Money Saving Expert website. Basically, when this guy says something, especially it’s all in CAPS then he’s checked and double-checked the facts. He wouldn’t make this kind of statement without being absolutely sure.

If he says that Limited Company Directors CAN furlough themselves – even if they are the sole employee of the company, then that’s good enough for me.

So, what does that change?

Well, for me it doesn’t change anything at all. I am in a position where I can operate as normal, i.e. I have a dedicated, fully equipped home office. All I am missing right now is a client but, as I don’t intent to furlough myself, I can continue to search and engage as before. I can still work for the company – it’s business (almost) as usual in that respect.

Obviously, this may not be the case for everyone and if 80% of their salary would make a difference to their ability to see this thing out then they should take it.

But that’s the sting here isn’t it – most contractors pay themselves a minimal salary, topping them up with regular dividends. So 80% of £750 is £600 a month – in most cases this is far short of their normal income and maybe not enough to keep them afloat and that’s a major concern.

But contractors who are shouting about being ‘forgotten’ and ‘left out’ really don’t understand the slippery slope they are treading – especially with IR35 set to raise it’s ugly head once more.

Huh? What’s IR35 got to do with this?

This is what Andy Chamberlain from IPSE had to say about contractor complaining about being ‘left out’ of the Self Employee Income Support Scheme:

I urge you to click the above tweet and then read the rest of his thread.

If we want to be treated as regular businesses and not caught up in ill informed Employment Status determinations and blanket contractor bans then we have to accept the fact that we have done this to ourselves.

Help is being offered to us but as we decided to pay ourselves in the way we do and now it has come back to bite us.

Not a popular opinion I’m sure – but that’s where we are.

Covid-19 Support Response

Update: 28th March 2020

As I mentioned below ‘things may change’ – and they did, pretty quickly. See my update post on what changed

With the UK in lock-down due to the CoronaVirus (Covid-19) everyone is justifiably concerned about their jobs and their income.

In an unprecedented move the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, has announced a raft of measures from mortgage holidays, deferment of tax payments as well as packages to pay 80% of people income (or £2500/mth).

As wide reaching as the measures are the contractor community is up in arms because we appear to have been left out in the cold.

Now, the details of these measures are still coming out and there is a great deal of confusion so what I’m about to write may well change going forward.

The two main packages are:

  • Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (link)
  • Covid-19 Self-Employment Income Support Scheme (link)

Now, the first of these aims to prevent companies from having to make their staff redundant by paying 80% of their salary up to a maximum of £2500. The employees must be ‘furloughed’ which basically means that aside from training they are not allowed to do any work for the company.

While this is pretty generous for employed staff, the self-employed were up in arms that they had been left out. While there were other avenues opened up, e.g. Statutory Sick Pay which the self-employed are not normally entitled to, these provided much less in the way of financial support.

It took a week for the Chancellor to present the second scheme aimed at the self-employed which offered the same 80% but this time over the average monthly profit as submitted in the previous three years tax returns.

The fly in the ointment is that these payments won’t be available until the beginning of June 2020 but the Chancellor insisted that other sources of funds were available from banks etc and combined with the other measures, e.g. mortgage holidays, this was the best that could be done.

All sounds ‘good’ what’s the problem?

Now, all that is unprecedented – the government stepping in to pay employee salaries and the lost income of the self-employed, but where does it leave the UK’s contracted workforce? In particular what about those who, like myself, operate through a Limited Company.

Well, many contractors consider themselves to be self-employed; after all the company is theirs and they employ themselves so they presumed that they would be covered by yesterdays announcment.

Reading the details of the Self-Employed Income Support Scheme it was quickly found that this would not apply to us;

Those who pay themselves a salary and dividends through their own company are not covered by the scheme but will be covered for their salary by the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme if they are operating PAYE schemes.

HM Treasury and The Rt Hon Rishi Sunak MP (26th March 2020)

Most contractors operate in this manner, i.e. we pay ourselves a minimal salary and then withdraw dividends from the company profits.

For the avoidance of doubt, yes we do this because it is more tax efficient than taking a ‘proper’ salary. This does not mean that we pay no tax at all – far from it. My company pays Corporation Tax and Employers National Insurance while I pay my Personal Income Tax via self assessment.

With that out of the way let’s look at the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme as directed above.

Well, it will pay 80% of the our salary up to a maximum of £2500 a month. But as contractors normally pay themselves a minimal salary, circa £700-800 a month, this won’t add up to much at all.

It should also be remembered that the payment is dependent on the employee being ‘furloughed’ and essentially forbidden from performing any duties. But as Directors of the company, how can we do that? Monitoring the bank balance, paying invoices, marketing, chasing new contracts – this is all work and would mean that we would not be eligible for this scheme anyway.

[This is at least the current advise from my accountant and from many other sources out there. It is however a point of contention so as I said at the start, it may be subject to clarification]

So why are contractors being “left out”?

Well, step back for a minute. Is it just us that can’t claim from these schemes? Have we being singled out because we’ve been kicking off about IR35?

No, we haven’t.

All company directors will be in the same boat – none are self-employed and none can be furloughed (if the current understanding is correct).

I was a director of another Limited Company some years ago – nothing to do with contracting, just a “regular” business. From what I understand if I was still there I would be as ineligible as I am now.

Think about the directors of the last clients you worked for (assuming it was a Limited Company and not another Contractor) – what’s their position?

If we want to keep the argument against IR35 alive we need to realise that we are no different from those other companies.

Yes, it sucks that everyone else seems to be getting bailed out while we aren’t – but that’s just how it is.

We’ve all had periods ‘between contracts’ and while I don’t look forward to them I do try to plan for them. I know that I can survive a few months with nothing coming in. It’s uncomfortable to watch the bank balance draining but at the end of the day but that buffer is there for a reason.

And here’s the kicker – and it won’t be popular

If we raise Mary Hell about this then we are eroding our argument about IR35.

If we demand to be treated differently to all the other Limited Company Directors out there – then we are essentially saying “we are not like those regular companies”.

When we get through Covid-19, and we will get through it, will we then start saying – “we are just regular companies so IR35 shouldn’t apply to us”?

My standpoint (for what it’s worth)

I don’t see myself as ‘self-employed’. I am a Director of and employed by a Limited Company – a legal entity in it’s own right.

That company provides services to others (end-clients) but I remain an employee of the company and not of those clients.

Even if I was able to furlough myself from my company, which current advice says I cannot, then it really would not be worth it from a financial standpoint.

I would much rather make the effort to keep my company afloat, to dig in and work through this – or at least ride it out.

IR35 – Delayed; but not forgotten

Yesterday (17th March 2020) the Government announced that they would be postponing the rollout of IR35 changes into the private sector due to the Coronavirus outbreak.

Despite the Minister referring to ‘off roll payroll working rules‘ (maybe indicating that he has no real idea what they are) he confirms that the changes will be tabled again ready for implementation in April 2021.

This comes far too late for many genuine contractors and associated services such as accountants who have had to close their businesses down as clients imposed blanket bans or ‘Inside’ determinations requiring the engagement of Umbrella companies and significant reductions in income.

It also comes the day after HMRC provided evidence to the House of Lords and were found seriously wanting in their response to scrutiny. While the House of Lords cannot force Government to defer the bill we have to hope that this contributed to the decision to pause the rollout (regardless of what they say).

The #StopTheOffPayrollTax campaign has been very active on Twitter and in organising a march on Parliament – but it appears that it took the Global Coronavirus Pandemic for the Government to realise that the proposed implementation and it’s consequences were out of step with the rescue packages it had announced for ‘regular businesses’, i.e. not the self-employed.

Many people think that it’s just IT Contractors that were going to be affected but it soon became clear that the flexible workforce is woven throughout our society. From the hospitality sector to veterinary surgeries, from the NHS and pharmacies to driving instructors. As the extent of the impact became more widely understood the noise started to grow.

But when Dr Iain Campbell started to highlight the strain that the draconian changes to the IR35 legislation would bring to the front-line NHS staff treating those infected with the Coronavirus did things become very real indeed.

So What Now?

Well we are not out of the woods yet – not by a long shot.

In the above video clip the Government confirm that this is a delay and not a cancellation of the changes being rolled out into the private sector.

So, despite all the evidence the Governments standpoint is remains that;

‘People doing the same job should be taxed the same way’

The UK Government and HMRC

Apparently this is regardless of the fact that they will not receive the additional benefits that the tax contributions buy their employed counterparts, e.g. statutory sick pay.

The last few months has been a stark warning that unless the legislation is changed or proper guidance is provided to end-clients then we will be in the same position twelve months from now. Teetering on the edge of a flexible workforce implosion.

I think it’s far more likely that nothing will change from the Government apart from a renewed desire to get the changes implemented – so it’s down to the end-clients to get up to speed with the ins and outs of IR35, unless they want to see contractors walking off site in their droves (and they will – that’s been shown!).

Working Outside IR35 is not (in my opinion) that hard and by making very few changes to working conditions most (but not all) of the roles determined to be Inside can easily be moved Outside IR35- and in a manner which can be defended if need be.

The problem is that end-clients don’t understand IR35 enough to be able to say with confidence that the legislation does not apply to a role. This is further compounded by the fear that HMRC will come after them for tax which is deemed to be unpaid should they disagree with the employment status determination.

It is this fear that has left the flexible workforce facing extinction – being forced to make a choice between contract termination or being ’employed for tax purposes’, but not for employment rights!

But the onus doesn’t lay solely with the end-clients – we, the flexible workforce, need to take these twelve months to help them understand what Outside IR35 means and why we are so important to them.

And it’s not only the end-client that needs to be brought up to speed.

We all know that there are contractors out there who are operating contrary to the legislation (knowingly or otherwise). They need to be educated as to how to operate in a compliant manner or called out as a disguised employee.

Me

People are on Twitter claiming victory but we are a long, long way from winning!

The Government seem to accept that the changes were going to have a massive negative impact on a large number of businesses, otherwise the suspension of rollout due to the ‘ongoing spread of Covid-19 to help buinesses and individuals‘ would make little sense.

If they are set on this course of action then the flexible workforce and the end-clients we offer services to need to be ready for the changes which seem inevitable.

IR35 and the Implosion of the Contracting Market

When I checked Twitter this morning my heart sank – I was watching the new Chancellor (Rishi Sunak) regurgitate the HMRC view of IR35 and the changes to be rolled out into the private sector in April.

He was essentially announcing the Death Knell of Flexible Working as we know it – the contract market will shortly implode even further than it already has.

We, the contracting community had hoped that the fresh faced minister would pause the roll-out and call for the review that was promised ahead of Decembers election.

Instead he stated “it’s not fair to all the people who is employed that someone else who is doing the same job is paying less tax” – the cornerstone of the HMRC argument for making the changes.

On the face of it that may be a reasonable stance to take – but they are not comparing apples with apples here (and they damn well know it).

While we make be doing the same job we are engaged on a very different basis.

We have structured ourselves to operate as service companies to offer clients a flexible resource as and when they need it for as long as they need it (and no longer).

Notwithstanding the fact that contractors are not entitled to sick pay, holiday pay, pension contributions and other benefits such as professional development (training), gym membership and health insurance. Sure, not all of these are covered by the tax & National Insurance they pay but the overall package makes them an employee.

Add to that the notice period that they benefit from, normally a month but can be more, and the fact that even if there is no real work for them to do their employer is still obliged to pay them for turning up. Even if they ‘let them go’ they would have to pay them for their notice period (and any untaken holiday pay!)

Contractors normally have very short notice periods, if they have one at all, and their contract can be terminated at anytime for just about any reason – there is no guarantee of work (and no expectation of it – that’s the life of a contractor).

So, what’s changed?

IR35 itself – the legislation (as complex and unfit for purpose as it may be) – will not change. Determinations on employment status will still need to be made with reference to this legislation.

What’s changed is who makes that determination after April 6th 2020.

Since it’s introduction around twenty years ago, it was the contractors responsibility to determine their employment status. If that determination indicated that the role was Inside IR35 then they would be liable for the payment of tax as if they were an employee. If it was Outside IR35 then this did not apply.

With the benefits of being Outside IR35 pretty clear cut – most contractors preferred that arrangement.

The problem is that some contractors were not as diligent (or just blatantly avoiding paying the additional tax) and declared themselves as being Outside IR35 when the contract and/or working conditions didn’t support that determination.

HMRC claims that as many as 9 out of 10 contractors are operating in this manner – but have not be able to substantiate this claim. The generally accepted figure is less than 30% of contractors are declaring themselves as being Outside when their working conditions are such that they should really be Inside.

So, in April 2020 HMRC will require the end-client to make the employment status determination instead of the contractor.

What could go wrong? If the end-client is using the same, unchanged, legislation as the contractors have been for years then surely this will put things right …. won’t it?

Well, along with the responsibility for making the determination comes the responsibility for getting it wrong. By wrong I mean making an ‘Outside’ determination which HMRC later decide should be ‘Inside’ (they won’t be interested in the other scenario).

Should an end-client incorrectly determine a role to be ‘Outside’ then they will be responsible for paying the tax that HMRC deems to be owed – which could be thousands of pounds here.

That’s the kicker here..! Companies are generally risk averse and locking horns with the taxman is something they would quite rightly want to avoid.

Companies have looked at their contractors and thought – “if we get it wrong and have to pay back-tax for them then is that a risk that we can sustain?”

The answer in most cases is, understandably, No!

Despite claims (lies?) by Finance Minister Jesse Norman in the House of Commons that it’s not happening, many companies are making blanket determinations that mean either:

  • They will not use contractors in anyway shape or form after the changes come into force
  • All roles will be deemed as Inside IR35 regardless of the outcome of a proper determination.

Many contractors are being walked out of the door by shortsighted clients fearful of HMRC while others are being told that they can stay only if they move to being ‘Inside’ (taking the tax hit in the process – for no perceivable benefit).

What are the implications?

This clearly shows a misunderstanding of the legislation and flies in the face of requirement for due diligence on a case by case basis that was assured (and even required by HMRC).

But just think about it for a minute – what are the implications of moving from being ‘Outside’ to ‘Inside’ with the same client? What is that actually saying?

Surely that indicates that, assuming the role hasn’t actually changed, the contractor accepts that they had previously been working on the wrong side of the legislation and is therefore liable for the tax they will now be deemed to have avoided as a result. Who in their right mind would sign up for that?

HMRC have apparently said that they will not investigate the retrospective status of contractors making this move from Outside to Inside – but after everything that’s gone on in the past few months, why would we trust them? Are they really saying that they would ignore cases of potential tax fraud?

Now, not all companies are making this blanket determinations – some are actually doing it properly and you can use the OffPayroll.org.uk website to see who is doing it right and who is not.

How’s the future looking?

If I’m being honest, as it stands right now, I’m not that hopeful. The House of Lords is conducting a review of the impact of the changes but I’m not sure what they will conclude. Even if they agree that the changes are excessively damaging I’m not sure whether they can actually call a halt to the roll-out or just make a recommendation.

It is clear that the government (small ‘g’ is intentional!) is going to plough ahead with the change – regardless of the evidence that it may mean that a significant number of contractors will be forced out of their current engagements and maybe have to close their businesses down. No doubt they will claim that these people were operating contrary to the legislation and that the changes have been successful in their aim.

Fortunately I’m currently engaged with a small start-up company which will be exempt from the proposed changes – so the employment determination remains with me.

I’ve had the contract independently reviewed and it has come back as being Outside IR35. The client is aware of IR35 and are happy for me to operate in a manner that will demonstrate that I am indeed Outside.

In a couple of months I will draw up a Working Conditions Declaration for the client to review and sign. This will help support the ‘implied contract’ concentrating on how the services are being provided and how they differ from employment.

The contract should run for another five months (but may finish earlier – I’m a genuine contractor remember) and when it concludes there is no obligation for the client to offer another (or for me to accept it).

So my hope is that, in the four months between the changes coming into place and the contract ending, clients will see that blanket determination and bans are not working for them and that the contract market is in recovery.

Failing that I will have to hope that I can secure a contract with another ‘small company’ where I will be responsible for my employment status determination or that a larger client is engaging with contractors and operating in a fair with regards IR35.

If these things do not come to pass then I will, with a heavy heart, have to close my business and look for a permanent position instead. My income will be lower and my flexibility will be gone but I will have employee benefits and paying the tax to ‘earn’ them.

Taken as a whole the taxes that HMRC will receive from me, i.e. personal and corporation, will be reduced as a result. With the stated intention of these changes being the increase of revenue this kind of flies in the face of what will actually happen.

There is still time for the government to delay the roll-out (maybe based on the outcome from the Lords, maybe common sense will prevail) – but all we, the Flexible Workforce, can do is watch and wait as nobody is listening to us.

IR35 – Living with a Broken Promise

Well I guess it’s old news now, although it was quite foreseeable, but despite a pre-election promise the Conservatives have reneged on their commitment to review the IR35 legislation. Instead they will review the process for rolling the changes into the private sector – not the same thing at all.

Instead of me going over old ground, take a look at my previous IR35 post which was published prior to the election (and it’s broken promises).

In the weeks that have followed Twitter has been ablaze with tweets tagged with #IR35 – many are mine. There is a lot of anger out there and our worst fears, that end clients would take the ‘easy option’ and just stop using contractors altogether has come to pass (despite HMRC saying it wouldn’t).

Take a look at the OffPayroll.org.uk site and you’ll see the extent of the problem that is unfolding.

Many contractors are being let go and the work is being farmed out overseas. Those clients choosing to keep their flexible workforce are either making blanket assessments that all roles are ‘Inside IR35’ (as they see it safer that way) or using the HMRC CEST tool with limited understanding on how to answer the questions it asks – this will normally result in an ‘Inside IR35’ determination.

Many will point at the CEST results and declare that most historic roles should have been deemed ‘Inside IR35’ so the system is working correctly and that we have all be fleecing the system for years.

There is no doubt that some contractors, knowingly or otherwise, have been operating on the wrong side of IR35 – it would be foolish of me to say otherwise. But why is it that whenever a minority are found to be bending or breaking the rules everyone has to suffer the consequences?

So where does that leave me?

Well, I guess I’m lucky in that I’m in the process of securing a role with a client that will be exempt from the changes – they are a start up and satisfy the ‘Small Business’ definition. This means that I’m responsible for making the IR35 determination. I’ve discussed this with the client and they am not an employee and that I’m providing a service via a business-to-business arrangement.

The project involves the development of a viable proof of concept and the contract will last 6 months.

Maybe the dust will have settled a bit by August 2020 and clients will realise that banning PSCs or imposing blanket ‘Inside IR35’ decisions isn’t working for them.

I’m sure that the government (small ‘g’ was deliberate!) won’t have changed their stance – they will more than likely spin whatever happens to their advantage, that’s what they do.

But it all comes down to this – what happens if, when this contract comes to an end, all the suitable roles are ‘Inside IR35’? What will I do then?

Well, it’s simple – if I cannot find an ‘Outside IR35’ role or secure a role with an exempt company, I’ll have to look for a permanent role instead and to close down my Personal Service Company.

I will not work ‘Inside IR35’ as a ‘No Rights Employee’ – period. It won’t happen, ever!

Dave Carson (On The Fence Development) January 2020

This would be a shame and frankly it makes little sense for the government (small ‘g’ is deliberate remember) to stand there and accept that.

I pay more tax as a contractor that I would as a permanent employee – many contractors are the same. So by forcing us out of business there will be an inevitable loss in revenue – where is the sense in that?

IR35 2020 – Thoughts from the Coal Face

I’ve been contracting for over eight years now and in that time I’ve been careful to ensure that, to the best of my abilites, I operate in a manner that places me outside of the IR35 legislation. That is, to provide a service to my clients and not to be seen as an employee.

Currently it is my responsibility to determine the employment status of a role with regards IR35. I do this by having contracts independantly reviewed to ensure that they comply with the legislation and take steps to ensure that the actual working conditions are in accordance with service provision rather than employment.

If I get it wrong then it is down to me to justify my determination, in court if need be, and pay any unpaid taxes should I be unable to do so.

However, in April 2020 that determination could largely be taken out of my hands and placed in those of the fee payer, e.g. the client if I’ve been engaged directly or otherwise a recruitment agency that have facilited the engagement.

HMRC have decided to make this change stating their belief that most contractors are incorrectly self-declaring themselves as being outside of IR35 and avoiding paying the correct level of tax.

They have not been able to substantiate these claims, despite repeated calls to do so – but that’s not the reason for this post.

There are a number of problems with this, seemingly subtle shift in responsibilities but, as I see it, the main one that a great many end clients have no concept of IR35 or how to interpret it. Until now they’ve really not had to worry about it – the contractor turned up, did the work and left again. The client paid the contractors Limited Company or the recruitment agency an agreed fee and life was simple.

From April 2020, fee payers that meet the size and turnover criteria will need to determine whether IR35 applies and is so deduct tax as source prior to paying the contractors company. However, the IR35 legislation is complex and confusing – with HMRC losing more cases than it wins it is clear that they don’t fully understand it either.

If, in the eyes of HMRC, the fee payer gets the IR35 determination wrong and have deemed a contract to be outside of the legislation instead of inside then they will be responsible for paying the overdue tax – which may not be trivial. So what do we think clients are going to do? Are they going to invest the time into understanding IR35 so that they can defend and ‘outside’ determination or just take the ‘easy’ route?

Well, in spite of HMRC saying it wouldn’t happen, many major clients, particularly in the banking sector, have already stated that they will either not be engaging with contractors after April 2020 or will be considering ALL contract positions to be within IR35. That way they will stay on the right side of HMRC and everything is simple again.

The problem is that while HMRC may be happy with this, afterall they will be receiving additional revenue from these blanket IR35 determinations, many contractors are not.

Without getting into the nitty-gritty of IR35 it is not easy to see the problems that this will create for contractors but I think that there is an opportunity to educate the clients here. To make them aware of the difference between contractors, who provide a business-to-business service, and their permanent employees.

Provision of Services – A ‘Tradesperson’

First of all imagine that you run a company and want to freshen the office up a little bit.

You contact a decorating company and explain your requirements and agree on a price and timescale for the work. The company duly send a suitably qualified decorator to your site, you tell them what you want done and they get on and they get on and do it.

When they are done they leave and if you are happy with the work you pay the invoice.

So, what have you done here?

You have engaged with a company to provide you with a service. They have sent one (or more) of their employees to carry out the work and then invoiced you for that work.

The key here is that the company has provided you with a service – you have not directly employed the person who arrived to do the work. You don’t need to pay their taxes or into their pension. If they are unavailable the company can send someone else, suitably qualified of course, to continue with the work.

If the work was scheduled to take a week and it’s finished in three days then you are not obliged to provide additional work to fill the time – and neither is the decorator or company obliged to accept it if you do. The engagement was for a set piece of work and once that is done the engagement is over.

Now, I think that’s pretty straightforward and nobody should have a problem with that. But the thing is that the provision of service is somewhat clear cut; you have engaged with a company who provide services that your company is not skilled in.

Provision of Services – Contractors

Imagine now that you run a company which has a Software Development aspect to it and you need some additional resource to fulfil a project on time.

You reach out, directly or via an agency, to a company providing contracted software development services, explain your requirements and agree on a price and timescale for the work.

The contractor arrives on site, is told what needs to be done and gets on and does it.

Once the work is completed there is no expectation that further work needs to be offered or accepted and the engagement is over.

During the engagement should the contractor fall ill there is no expectation that their services will be invoiced unless they are able to send a suitable replacement (at the contracting companies cost) to continue with the work.

Does this sound familiar? It should do – it’s pretty much the same as the previous example with the decorator.

The difference is that the service being provided is something that your company already does and the contractor is probably expected to work within an existing team.

This is where the lines start to blur and the grey areas start to appear.

Why does this make a difference?

With a contractor more embedded in the business and it’s team it is easy for the client to see them as an employee and attempt to treat them as such.

I’ve had instances where a client will attempt to dictate my working hours (despite working a standard 7.5 hours) and my dress code (I was wearing a polo shirt with my company branding).

Would the client feel able to do this with their decorator? I think not.

If they arrive at 9 and leave at 3 but get the work done to the required standard and complete the job on time then surely that’s what matters. If the quality isn’t there or the job isn’t finished then that’s another matter altogether.

The client wouldn’t expect to be able to dictate the dress code for these external workers, or when they take their lunch breaks so why expect to do it with a contractor?

I may well sound like a bit of a diva here – I mean, who do I think I am? But this is the reality of the matter. The client has engaged my company, directly or indirectly, to provide a service – I am not their employee.

Now, in order to integrate into a team a contractor will normally work similar hours but their hours should only really be dictated by their ability to access the building (assuming they are working on site).

I will obviously make efforts to integrate with the team and working conditions but this is in order to maximise the value of the services I provide – I’m kinda old school like that.

The Take Away

I believe that unless clients can understand this concept then they will have little chance of being able to make an accurate determination of employment status.

If they see contractors as employees, albeit temporary, then they will simply not grasp the importance of determining an accurate employment status with regards IR35.

It may well be that a particular role is correctly deemed to be within IR35 and if this is the case then that’s fine.

However, clients should avoid taking the stance that all contracts are within IR35 – doing so will not only damage the contracting industry in the UK but the client will also severely hamper their ability to engage with an experienced, temporary and flexible workforce to delivery their project and products.

On The Fence Development – What’s All That About Then?

I’ve been contracting for over seven years now and during that time I’ve had  a number of clients, friends fellow contractors ask me “…why ‘On The Fence‘? What’s that all about??”.

Ignoring the fact that the blog I initially hosted on this domain was about my experiences with Linux and Open Source while working day to day as a .NET Developer using Windows, I think that the name fits – it’s all about not putting all your eggs in one basket as it were.

I think that there is quite a wide line between trying to be a ‘Jack of All Trades’ and a ‘One Trick Pony’ and as a Contractor I think that this is a good place to be.

Some will disagree, Jon Sonmez of Simple Programmer certainly advocates specialising and he’s retired in his 30’s so maybe I’m the one who’s wrong here. But while I can see the merits in this approach and it worked out well for Jon, I don’t think that being ‘the expert in the Xamarin.Forms Grid control‘ is going to get me that far (that’s not to say that the Grid control is a trivial thing of course).

I also don’t think that trying to be a Guru in Desktop, Web and Mobile development  is viable either. We all know that this would be virtually impossible to achieve with the technology shifting under us all the time.

I do however think that to be a viable option as a contractor you need a good foundation knowledge, spread of skills across various technologies and a desire to learn as you go (let’s face it – nobody can know it all).

So that’s what I aim for.

I have experience with Desktop development using WinForms, WPF and am starting to look at UWP.

On the Web development front I am currently working with a client who has an ASP.NET WebForms application and another using MVC while a freelance project has me ramping up on ASP.NET MVC Core development on a Linux host.

With Mobile development I am all Xamarin, whether it’s the native flavours for Android and iOS or Xamarin.Forms. Hooking these up to Azure (or ASP.NET WebAPI Core) backend is also within my skillset.

I’m always looking to keep my skills up to date, while able to support existing deployments using older technologies – and even migrate them forwards should that be the desire.

The Ups and Downs of being a Contractor

As with most careers being a contractor has it’s ups and downs and I have certainly had my share of both over the last couple of months.

When my last contract came to an end I entered the limbo land that is ‘between contracts’. Due to the nature of contracting many clients require someone who is immediately available, or at least within a week or so. Looking further than a couple of weeks ahead and you are probably going to be passed over for someone who can get their feet under the desk much quicker.

I had not been looking for a follow-on contract because I already had a holiday booked and, knowing that I would have minimal phone & email access for a couple of weeks, I had decided to leave that until I returned to the UK. I then gave myself a couple of weeks ‘off’ during which time I would continue work on the Xamarin implementation of the FillLPG for Android application and hit Pluralsight to keep my axe sharp and my stills current.

This worked out quite well and I secured a contract with a previous client pretty quickly – but this was subsequently withdrawn as their client put the brakes on the project. Disappointing but that’s how it goes sometimes. At this point I was approaching the end of the two weeks I’d given myself to find a new contract and for the first time in three and a half years I was not actually billing any time at the end of a month. Still – something else would come along….

And it did, in the form of a potential 12 month contract which required SC clearance (which I have). The location was a comfortable commute and the day rate was pretty good too. At the start of October 2014 I was offered the contract (subject to references) which I duly accepted. It turned out that the client was using an external resourcing company and they required 3 years of references – which as a contractor amounts to quite a few people to contact. Fortunately my recruitment agent dealt with most of this for me and after completing numerous forms I was finally given a start date.

But the story does not end there – more’s the pity. While driving to the client site I received a phone call (yes I have hands-free in the car) advising me that the external resourcing company had not processed my security clearance and I would not be allowed on site. This was disappointing but it turned out that while my SC clearance was valid it had deactivated because I was not in a security role for more than 12 months – who knew.

Worse was to come as the process of reactivating my clearance relied on a clunky website that frequently displayed the good old ‘Yellow Screen of Death’ but eventually served up a PDF form to be completed and was followed by a 10 day process of validation. This would be more billable time that would pass me by. I was able to pick up some freelance work, make good progress with my Xamarin development and watch a number of Pluralsight courses so it was not as if I was sitting around watching Daytime TV.

The validation process ended up taking almost 3 weeks and I was eventually given another start date and my recruitment agent was just waiting for the purchase order so that he could generate the contract.

The start date arrived but I still didn’t have a contract to sign. Finally, at 2:00pm I was advised that the client had reorganised resources and didn’t need my services anymore (apparently I was not the only contractor who was cut loose).

So between the incompetence of the external resourcing company and the unprofessional behavior of the end client, who has expressed their desire to get me on site as soon as possible, I had essentially ‘lost’ over £6500 in billable time. This was bad enough but I had been contacted about numerous other contracts while I was waiting but due to the nature of this one I decided to wait it out.

But it’s not been all bad. During the last month I have been able to migrate a local church website from an aging version of Joomla to a slick Squarespace site and secure a maintenance contract to administrate and maintain it. I’ve also migrated their creaking database (created by a parishioner) to an MVC4 web application and add new, desperately needed, features that the previous implementation could not support. The FillLPG for Android application has been written using Xamarin, has gone into Beta testing and should be released before Christmas. I’ve also watched a number of Pluralsight courses to help keep my skills current and improve my chances of securing interesting contracts in the future.

They say ‘You Can’t Keep a Good Man Down’ and as I type I have an interview for a Bristol based contract later today and have a number of other irons in the fire so things are looking up.

Dealing with Recruiters – a Contractors Survival Guide

I’ve been contracting for about a year now and this has meant that I’ve had numerous dealings with recruiters and recruitment agencies. While I’ve been quite successful in obtaining contracts I’m afraid that my opinion of many recruiters (not necessarily the agencies themselves) is that they do not provide any value to the process, indeed the detract from it. Now before all you recruiters out reading this head down to leave a comment (please do so after you’ve finished reading though) let me qualify that statement with a few examples in the form of some tips for the unwary (a survival guide if you will):

  • When you answer a call from a recruiter, make your first question – ‘Is this a contract position?’
    • My CV states that I’m a contractor and my job site profiles indicate that I’m looking for Contracted positions but I constantly receive calls and emails about permanent positions. Not only is this wasting my time but also that of the recruiter. This is compounded when I receive a call while at a client site and have to stop what I’m doing to have a pointless discussion.
  • I’ll send the details over to you now – believe it when you see it
    • I’ve lost count of the number of times that a recruiter has said – ” I’ll send all the details over to you shortly “, and then hasn’t bothered to do so. If they don’t think that I’m suitable for the role then just say so, I’m cool with that. By promising to do something that they have no intention of doing is unprofessional to say the least.
  • Beware the question – ‘Have you been put forward for any other positions recently?’
    • This sounds innocuous enough but could be the recruiter just trying to uncover any opportunities that they are unaware of. I have first hand knowledge of this after I told a recruiter about an interview I had lined up. I later found out that he had contacted that company with a list of candidates he thought they should also consider for the role. As it happened his agency was not on the approved supplier list so it was a non-starter for him but it proves the point.
    • The question may be rephased as ‘So that we don’t duplicate applications, have you been put forward for any positions recently?’ but the upshot is that you should remain tight lipped about your leads and ask them to name the client to see if you are already represented. If they genuinely want to represent you then they’ll tell you or at least give you enough of a hint to let you know if it is someone you are already speaking to via another agency. If that’s the case then there’s no harm in telling them.
  • Before I can represent you I need you to provide some references – really?
    • Again, this may sound innocuous but be careful what information you give out. I was recently asked for references (including a name from the company I was currently contracting for) BEFORE a recruiter would pass my details onto his client. Apparently this was to maintain a high level of quality in the candidates that he represented. Fair enough I thought. The client I was working for at the time said that they normally didn’t do this for contractors but was prepared to provide some basic information if required. However, the phone call he received had little to do with me, the recruiter was really asking whether he had any upcoming need for any more contractors!
    • Essentially the recruiter was phishing for points of contact that he could call to offer his services – he had no opportunity for me and I never heard from him again (which may be a good thing)
  • Automated Emails
    • One you are on the recruiters databases you will start to get automated emails containing opportunities that may interest you. At first you think that this is a good thing but that opinion soon swings around to thinking of this messages as little more than SPAM.

      • Many of the automated emails I receive are of such low quality that it beggers belief. Many are for Permanent positions (see above) and others are so irrelevant as to be comical – I received one for an ‘Underwater Product Engineer’ and have no idea why the system thought I may be interested.
      • Some appear to come from individual recruiters but if that’s the case then it’s an even sorrier state of affairs than I thought.

With all that said, I have encountered a number of recruiters that have not only secured contracts for me but also shown a level of professionalism that many of us would expect. This handful of recruiters will be my first port of call in future when my contacts are coming to their conclusion – I’ll not reactivate my CV on the Job Boards in the first instance. They have gone that extra mile, delivered on their promises and above all earned my respect and more than likely that of the many clients they can introduce me to.

So there you have it – my survival guide for dealing with recruiters. Now I’ve been pretty hard on recruiters here but i speak as I find and frankly that’s what I’ve found. If you are a recruiter reading this and wish to respond then please feel free to do so. If you are a contractor with some tips or experiences of your own then I’d also like to hear them.

Contracting – A Year (Almost) After Taking the Leap

So it was about this time last year that i decided to move out of Permanent employment and into the cattle market that is Contracting. Looking back I have to say that I’m happy with my decision and have no regrets on that front. That said, the last year has not been plain sailing and in this post (during which I will try not to rant too much) I’ll try to paint a fair picture of the good and the bad from the last year.
Contrary to what many people may think, my decision to enter the Contracting market had nothing to do with charging huge day rates. Yes money is important but, as people who know me will confirm, I always say

“If you don’t like what you are doing then do something else”

I cannot understand (nor tolerate) people who complain endlessly about the fact that they hate their job but are still happy to take a salary for doing it.

I am in the fortunate position of loving what I do. I enjoy Software Development and want to be the best that I can be; although I may never end up working for Google or Facebook. The problems arise when you are working in an environment which cannot (or will not) keep pace with the changing technologies and practices.

One of my previous employers still has not adopted any form of source control beyond just creating a new folder for the next version of the application and copying the current code into it!

I know it is not possible for companies to simply adopt every new thing that comes along but by not moving forward they are not just standing still, they are moving backwards and the technology divide between them and the bleeding/cutting edge only increases.

Looking back at the companies/organisations I’ve worked for on a permanent basis I can see that the point at which I decided to leave was when I saw no more room to grow as a developer. When I’ve suggested using some new technology I’ve normally been told that there is no business need to do so and that they are happy with what is being produced with the current one. The fact that I was not happy is what has caused me to look elsewhere and ultimately leave for a new role within a company that is adopting the new technologies – or at least so I thought. After a few years I found myself once again hitting the hard ceiling of progression and start to look elsewhere.

Now that I think about it, isn’t this just contracting for the long term, i.e. years instead of months?

So, the decision was made – I’d go quit my job and go contracting..!

I took a lot of advise from a friend of mine who had gone down the same road and within a week of so I had formed a limited company to trade under, secured the services of an accountant specializing in contractors and setup a business bank account – what I didn’t have was any work!

During my notice period I revamped my CV and posted it onto about half a dozen job boards. This generated numerous phone calls from recruiters, between 6 and 15 a day – every weekday, but most of these came to nothing. As a fresh faced contractor I didn’t really know what to expect but this certainly was not it!

In terms of promising much and delivering little I’m afraid that many (not all) recruitment agencies are up there with politicians

Yes there are many good ones out there but you have to sift through the rest to find them. I’m writing another blog post (to be published later in the week) on my experiences of dealing with recruiters but suffice to say that I have found this aspect to be the biggest burden of contracting in my opinion.

Over the last 12 months I have found some good ones and now feel happy that I do not have to tout myself on the Job boards in the first instance – I’ll contact these recruiters who have shown themselves to be professional and actually follow through on their promises – even if this does not result in me securing a contract at the end of it all.

Each of the contracts I have secured to date has been a challenge, without exception. Each has exposed me to new technologies or to those that I only had a small understanding of – I’ve had to come up to speed very quickly indeed. I felt the need to prove myself very quickly, to show them that they made the right decision in hiring me and that I am worth the day rate that I’m charging. So far each of my contracts has been extended so I guess I must be doing something right.

This year has certainly raised my skill levels and fed my desire to become a better developer. Using new technologies and techniques as well as working in different environments has been a boost to my professional development and I hope to see it continue during the next twelve months.