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The truth about self-employment in the UK

Behind the headlines

By Andrew Burke  

This article was produced in association with CRSE

CRSE, IPSE and Prospect at the Conservative Party Conference

Tuesday 3rd October, 17:45 – 19:00, Exchange 1, Manchester Central, Secure Zone

There is a revolution under way in the labour force and the economy of the UK. It’s being driven by the country’s two million highly skilled freelancers—some of our most mobile and innovative specialists—working across every industry, from education to engineering. This dynamic sector of the labour force grew by 43 per cent between 2008 and 2016, and now contributes approximately £119 billion to the UK economy. Taking their specialist skills from project to project and mitigating risk for their clients, they are changing the face of work in the UK.

So why is so little heard about this tectonic shift? Why, when people think about self-employment, do they think not of highly skilled freelancers, but of deprivation and exploitation in the so-called gig economy? Well, in short, simplicity sells.

The truth is that newspapers and the rest of the media don’t want to try and present the complex reality of self-employment in the UK: the difference between a highly skilled IT contractor and a delivery rider—or between an established freelance designer and a ride-hailing driver. Their purposes are better served by dumbing down the complexity and simply lumping the country’s entire self-employed community into the same category.

In reality, the UK’s self-employed population is divided into two broad groups: highly skilled freelancers and less skilled gig economy workers. For several years now, it’s this latter group who have dominated the headlines—for all the wrong reasons. Because it’s not just simple news that sells—it’s bad news too. And while there certainly are a small number of unscrupulous companies who wrongly treat their staff as self-employed—thus denying them their rights—this shouldn’t crowd out news about the enormous contribution made by skilled freelancers.

Nor is the only problem with the press lumping all the self-employed together that it draws attention away from the achievements of highly skilled freelancers; there’s also a risk it could actually influence policy. Treating the self-employed as a homogenous group tends to result in ill-considered, one-size-fits-all policies, which could be disastrous—particularly for highly skilled freelancers.

In the wake of the Taylor Review into employment, for example, one idea kept resurfacing: ignoring the complexities and simply giving full employee rights to all self-employed people. Although this might be some help to exploited gig-workers, it would destroy the vital flexibility of skilled freelancers and do significant damage to the sector as a whole.

So what’s the solution? How do you improve the lot of exploited gig workers while also protecting the freedoms of skilled freelancers? Find out at IPSE (the Association of Independent Professionals and the Self Employed), CRSE (Centre for Research on Self-Employment) and Prospect’s event at the Conservative Party Conference.

Hosted by Prospect Editor Tom Clark, our expert panel will include:

  • CRSE’s Chairman, Professor Andrew Burke
  • IPSE’s Director of Policy, Simon McVicker
  • Uber’s Head of Public Policy, Andy Byrne
  • Damian Hinds MP, Minister of State for Employment


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