More unrest at the BBC – now it’s about personal service contracts and a word of warning about the ostensibly self-employed

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of “employment” provided through personal service companies is that such arrangements have lasted as long as they have.

When the BBC first published the salaries of its top presenters last year there were some notable omissions. For example David Dimbleby didn’t appear on the list. Why? Because he is paid by the BBC through a separate production company. Similar arrangements are in place for Lord Alan Sugar, John Torode and Gregg Wallace.

For years the BBC has encouraged and, some have argued, mandated some of their key talent to be paid through a personal service company. The idea is that the company provides the services of, say, the presenter to the BBC and the BBC therefore pays the company for the services provided. The upshot is that the presenter benefits from the lower tax regime for limited companies (currently 20%) rather than the higher personal tax rates of 40% over £45,000 and 45% over £150,000.

Unsurprisingly, HMRC have been chipping away at such arrangements for a number of years and, as far as the BBC is concerned, matters recently came to a head with a victory in the High Court against BBC Look North presenter Christa Ackroyd. Ms Ackroyd was sacked by the BBC in 2013 after HMRC demanded unpaid taxes from her on the basis that she was, in reality, an employee of the BBC and therefore required to be taxed under Schedule E. Her HMRC appeal was unsuccessful and she is now facing a bill for £419,151 in back taxes, plus undisclosed legal costs. An HMRC spokesman reiterated their long held view that “employment status is never a matter of choice…It is always dictated by the facts and when the wrong tax is being paid we put things right”.

You may take the view that Ms Ackroyd had tried it on and been caught out but, as is so often the case, it is by no means that straightforward and the BBC is very much under scrutiny as a result of its actions.

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Ministry of Justice confirm huge increase in Employment Tribunal claims

I’ll start with the big headline: Employment Tribunal claims (brought by individual Claimants) increased by 90% in the period between October to December 2017 (in comparison with the same period in 2016). To cut a long story short, the recent abolition of Employment Tribunal fees has led to Tribunal claims nearly doubling.

A small disclaimer is that the above statistic is currently a provisional figure, however, in reality, that figure tallies with my own expectations and experience over the past 12 months.

These statistics are slightly ironic given that, before the Supreme Court found Employment Tribunal fees to be unlawful, one of the main reasons the lower courts refused to find Employment Tribunal fees unlawful because there was ‘no evidence’ of the fees preventing individuals from accessing justice.

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Is the National Living Wage causing problems?

I think that most employers would take the view that the principle that employees should be paid a fair wage for their work is one that should be supported. However, sometimes a one size fits all approach can throw up anomalies. I should be clear: I’m not talking about those who exploit people to work excessively long hours for very poor pay (as low as £2.00 per hour), often in plainly unacceptable working conditions. I’ve written in this blog about people who have been kept effectively as slaves in the most appalling circumstances and these employers should be rooted out and dealt with severely, where appropriate in the criminal courts.

It is worth remembering that, when introduced on 1 April 1999, the adult National Minimum Wage was £3.60 per hour. Since then, it increased steadily for a number of years (around or a little ahead of inflation) but the big jump came on 1 April 2016 when it was hiked from £6.70 to £7.20 as part of the merger and rebrand as the National Living Wage. Subsequent increases (including those coming into effect on 1 April 2018) are here.

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Employees who are paid below the minimum wage can complain to an employment tribunal or to HMRC. If HMRC upholds the complaint the employer can be sent a notice of arrears plus a penalty. The maximum fine for non-payment (in addition to making good the arrears) is £20,000 per worker. In recent years HMRC have made a point of publishing (with high profile PR) lists of those businesses that have paid below the prescribed rates. It is not widely known that, in addition, directors of defaulting companies can be banned from being directors (or shadow directors) of any company for up to fifteen years.

So, what are the problems referred to in the title?

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Frozen out: Can it be too cold to work?

Spring is here. Or is that winter? All over the country, people are facing difficulty travelling on account of snow and ice and, here on Merseyside, things are no different.

In fact, this is quickly turning into that time of year when I receive multiple text messages from friends, some more jokey than others, asking if there is a minimum temperature at which they are required to work because their workplace is so cold or, as my favourite text states: ‘so cold as to give a polar bear frostbite!

Now, poorly polar bears aside, there isn’t a set temperature at which staff can suddenly declare it to be too cold and go home without recourse. Even if there was, those staff would be highly unlikely to be paid during their absence from office.

Instead, businesses rely on guidance from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). The HSE recommeds that office-based workers be exposed to temperatures no lower than 16C and any workers whose work requires ‘physical effort’ (i.e. being on your feet and moving arond) are not exposed to temperatures below 13C.

However, be very aware of that word above: ‘guidance‘.

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Theft in the workplace: Actionable or a load of hot air?

This afternoon, I returned to my chilly office to discover that my desk heater was absent. After a quick root round, it became clear that someone had borrowed it for a meeting room yesterday and forgot to return it. The mystery was solved and I’m back to being blasted with lovely, soothing warm air once again!

However, the experience did serve as a reminder of the number of times over the years when employers have rang to obtain advice about thefts in the workplace. And, no, I don’t mean borrowing items and forgetting to return them, as in the much tamer world of Canter Levin and Berg but, rather, intending to steal items. Obviously, this can occur either against the Company’s property or between colleagues.

So, how can an employer turn up the heat in pursuing a potential thief?

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A family (business) at war

If, like me, you have been enjoying Kay Mellor’s comedy drama Girlfriends on ITV, you may have cringed at some of the artistic licence deployed when dealing with aspects of the age discrimination claim being brought by Miranda Richardson’s character against her boss (and lover), played by Anthony Head. However, it has neatly highlighted the particular difficulties that can arise when workplace disputes get a bit too close to home.

A real life family dispute has been playing out in the Manchester Employment Tribunal and, more recently, in the Employment Appeal Tribunal. There is a major clue in the name of the case: Mrs J Feltham, B Feltham (Maintenance) Limited and Ms H Feltham v Feltham Management Limited, Mr D Feltham and Mr M Feltham. Feltham Management is a long established family business, specialising in property management, particularly in respect of student lettings. Jane Feltham is the claimant. She has three brothers, David, Martin and Stephen, all of whom were respondents in the Employment Tribunal claim. They all worked for the family business which was founded by their father. Hazel, the adult child of David, worked for the company as a clerical assistant and Jane’s husband was Mr Eckersall, a self-employed joiner who did work for the company.

In August 2013 it came to light that Mr Eckersall had been sending inappropriate texts and Facebook messages to his niece, Hazel. On the same day he told his wife, Jane, that he was leaving her because he had feelings for Hazel. Jane confronted Hazel, accusing her of inappropriate conduct, but she denied that she had done anything wrong. Jane’s brother David got involved and told Jane that if was her fault because she did not take Mr Eckersall’s name on marriage, did not respect him as head of the household and suggested that these (among other reasons) were why he wanted Hazel. Jane was upset and left work. She did not return.

With support from David, Hazel took over Jane’s duties as office manager. The company stopped paying Jane from the end of August, but she remained a director as well as continuing to receive benefits including a company car and credit card.

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Compensation for post-termination losses, even though lawfully expelled from partnership

The status of professional partners in the context of employment law has exercised the courts on many occasions. Are they employees, workers, or employers or, in some cases, none of the above. Is there a difference between self-employed salaried partners and employed salaried partners? From an employment perspective, probably not. Of course, the employment rights available vary from none to most, depending on which type of employment status (if any) applies.

The same issue arises in the case of members of an LLP (or limited liability partnership), who are often referred to as partners. One such member was a solicitor who worked for Wilsons Solicitors LLP and whose claim was recently considered by the Court of Appeal.

Mr Wilson became a member of the LLP in May 2008. He held the post of managing partner, as well as being the firm’s COLP (Compliance Officer for Legal Practice) and COFA (Compliance Officer for Finance and Administration).

In July 2014 the board of the LLP received a complaint of bullying made against the senior partner, Mr Nisbet. Mr Wilson investigated the complaint, reported his findings to the board and produced a report on 7 October 2014. On 21 October the board was supposed to meet to discuss the report. However, a majority of the members refused to attend the meeting. Instead, the following month, they demanded that Mr Wilson should resign. They then voted to remove him from his post. They also removed him from the posts of COLP and COFA before he was able to submit his report.

In January 2015 Mr Wilson wrote to the other members and claimed that they had repudiated the terms of the members’ agreement by their actions and he accepted the repudiatory breaches. He gave one month’s notice of his intention to leave the membership of the LLP on the basis that their actions had made continued membership intolerable.

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Protecting employees’ “stories” – Avoiding fines of up to €20m under the incoming General Data Protection Regulations

Last night, I visited a local community café for a fascinating talk about ‘story’. The gist of the evening centred around how humans think and dream in script form rather than in bullet points. A case in point? You dream in vivid, moving events, not static images.

Every part of our lives involves in story. Music is the story of events in lyrical form, whilst books and films introduce characters with backstories which shape their character going forwards. An example? In the Harry Potter books, Harry and Voldemort have the same backstory (magical orphans with horrible childhoods who are ‘saved’ by Hogwarts School) but both deal with that in different ways – i.e. one becomes good and one becomes evil.

Everybody has an individual story, whether in their social lives or during their employment. So, why am I going on about ‘story’?

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Dismissal for beard that was “too long” and “too religious” upheld

Back in December 2015 I commented on the decision of the European Court of Human Rights in Ebrahimian v France, which concerned the termination of employment of a health worker at a hospital who refused (on religious grounds) to remove her headscarf when she was on duty at work. By way of a brief recap, state secularism (or laïcité) is a strongly protected principle in French society. That is why you will not hear hymns or carols sung in French schools and there was a big fuss last month when a village commune tried to place a nativity scene in the square in front of the local mairie. It was determined that Ms Ebrahimian, by wearing a symbol of religious affiliation, was breaching her duties as a public official. In its judgment the court held that the non-renewal of her employment contract did amount to an interference with her right to manifest her religion, contrary to Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights. However, that interference had the legitimate aim of protecting the rights and freedoms of others, pursuant to French law. Accordingly, her claim failed.

A similar case has now surfaced in the Versailles administrative Court of Appeal. A trainee doctor of Egyptian origin was dismissed from his job at Saint-Denis hospital centre in Seine-Saint-Denis because his “imposing” beard constituted an “ostentatious display of religious belief”. The individual concerned declined to deny or confirm that his appearance was intended to be a way to “demonstrate his religious activity”.  On 19 December, the Court of Appeal supported the decision, noting that although the wearing of a beard “even long”, cannot “on its own” cannot (necessarily) constitute a sign of religious affiliation, the “circumstances” entitled the hospital to at as it did.

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Would reforming the Working Time regulations be a good idea?

Brexit. Brexit. Brexit. Whilst Christmas and New Year provided a welcome rest from Brexit-dominated headlines, there is no doubt that the media train will start in earnest sooner rather than later.

Just before Christmas, various newspapers reported that the Working Time Regulations could be a target for the Government following the UK’s departure from the EU. Certain newspapers went further and stated that repealing or substantially amending the Working Time Regulations would be a positive example of removing so-called ‘red tape’ and freeing businesses from the burden of overbearing regulations; some newspapers even trotted out the over-used line of ‘taking back control’.

So, to use that awful phrase, should the UK ‘take back control’ and amend the Working Time Regulations?

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