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March 2017

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As Prime Minister Theresa May triggers Article 50 this week, UK business groups are calling for a constructive negotiation and a practical, pro-business Brexit deal.

The British Chambers of Commerce is calling for more investment in digital infrastructure as its latest survey finds that many UK businesses still have unreliable broadband connections.

Small businesses are increasingly relying on freelance talent to provide flexible and skilled labour, according to a new survey.

Square, the card payment app aimed at independent retailers and small businesses, has launched in the UK.

Our round-up of other small business stories making the headlines this week...

Hammond urged to rethink Making Tax DigitalMembers of a leading business group are calling on Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond to rethink plans for Making Tax Digital.

The UK200Group of independent accountants and lawyers has warned that the backlash against Making Tax Digital (MTD) could be just as great as the recent outcry over the rise in National Insurance Contributions (NICs) for the self-employed - announced in the Budget and then dropped a week later.

Francis Whitbread, partner at UK200Group member firm Edmund Carr, said, "The Chancellor's u-turn on the proposed increase in National Insurance Contributions for the self-employed suggests that those advisers, civil service mandarins, or whoever suggested the policy to Mr Hammond in the first place, have no idea of what goes on in the real world of SMEs."

Whitbread added: "I have a nasty suspicion this is not the only case of Mr Hammond being misinformed. I wrote to the Chancellor before Christmas setting out a number of concerns about Making Tax Digital (MTD). I received a reply on his behalf from HMRC assuring me my fears were groundless. In the recently published consultation on MTD the concerns expressed by the accountancy profession over a number of areas were similarly ignored."

Whitbread had this advice for Philip Hammond: "If you want to avoid another embarrassment with MTD similar to the one you have just had over national insurance for the self-employed, consult with the people who really know, my fellow accountants and tax advisers, before it is too late."

Andrew Jackson, chair of the UK200Group Tax Panel and head of tax at Fiander Tovell, said: "The proposed NI changes would cost each self-employed person a few hundred pounds; HMRC's estimates are that MTD will cost each business £280, but this is clearly an underestimate. It would be a great shame if businesses are spared a hike in NI, only to have a more costly MTD burden foisted on them."

The UK200Group represents chartered accountants and lawyers who together work with over 150,000 SME clients, including charities, construction firms and healthcare businesses.

Real wages fall as inflation hits 2.3%As inflation passes the Bank of England's 2% target for the first time since 2013, economists warn that higher prices are damaging real earnings and weakening the UK's growth potential.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) has reported that the Consumer Price Index (CPI) hit 2.3% in February, up from 1.9% in January.

It means that falls in real earnings have come sooner than expected, according to the Resolution Foundation. Its pay projection shows that real earnings growth fell to zero in February and is likely to have fallen further once figures for March are confirmed (between -0.3% and 0%).

"After 38 months inflation is back above the Bank's target, bringing to an end the era of ultra-low inflation that has boosted living standards in recent years," said Stephen Clarke, economic analyst at the Resolution Foundation. "Today's rapid increase is part of a wider trend with price rises set to be the big living standards story of this year. To date, pay settlements have failed to respond to rapidly rising prices, meaning there's a good chance pay packets are already shrinking in real terms."

Michael Martins, economist at the Institute of Directors (IoD), agreed that "real wages will likely have shrunk in the first quarter of 2017". He said: "The squeeze on disposable incomes will likely begin to eat into the UK's consumption-driven economic growth in the medium-term."

Suren Thiru, head of economics at the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC), also warned that "UK price growth is firmly on an upward trajectory".

He said: "The decline in the value of sterling, together with rising oil and other commodity prices, is likely to maintain the upward pressure on consumer prices in the coming months. We currently forecast that inflation will remain persistently above the Bank of England's 2% target over the near term, peaking at close to 3% in the second half of 2018.

Rising inflation is likely to damage the UK's growth prospects, he added. "Businesses continue to report that the rising cost of raw materials are squeezing margins, forcing many firms to raise their prices. Higher inflation is also likely to materially squeeze consumer spending in the coming months as price growth increasingly outpaces earnings growth."

The truth about the gig economyA new investigation into the reality of working in the gig economy shows that, contrary to assumptions, most gig workers have actively chosen this type of employment.

About 1.3 million people are engaged in gig work according to To gig or not to gig: Stories from the modern economy , a new report from the CIPD. It means that 4% of UK working adults aged between 18 and 70 are working in the gig economy.

The report is based on a survey of 400 gig economy workers and more than 2,000 other workers, as well as in-depth interviews with 15 gig economy workers.

It reveals that just 14% of respondents said they did gig work because they could not find alternative employment. The most common reason for taking on gig work was to boost income (32%).

Overall, gig economy workers are also about as likely to be satisfied with their work (46%) as workers in more traditional employment (48%).

However, nearly two-thirds of gig workers (63%) believe the Government should regulate to guarantee them basic employment rights and benefits such as holiday pay.

There were concerns raised by some workers about the level of control exerted over them by the businesses they worked for, despite the fact that they are classified as self-employed. Only four in ten (38%) gig economy workers say that they feel like their own boss.

Peter Cheese, CIPD chief executive, said: "This research shows the grey area that exists over people's employment status in the gig economy. Our research suggests that some gig economy businesses may be seeking to have their cake and eat it by using self-employed contractors to cut costs, while at the same time trying to maintain a level of control over people that is more appropriate for a more traditional employment relationship."

Other key findings include:

  • 57% of gig economy workers agree that gig economy firms are exploiting a lack of regulation for immediate growth;
  • But 50% also agree that people in the gig economy choose to sacrifice job security and benefits in exchange for flexibility and independence;
  • Median reported income for gig work is from £6 to £7.70 per hour but 51% say they are satisfied with their income.

Peter Cheese said: "We are pleased that the Government has commissioned Matthew Taylor to lead a review of modern employment practices … the Government also needs to … clarify people's employment rights and enforce existing legislation better, such as supporting a 'know your rights' campaign, so more people are aware of what protection they can expect."

In February, Acas published new guidance on gig economy working and employment status rights.

The SME Brexit wish list revealedNew research from the Federation of Small Businesses has revealed the trade deals that smaller firms want to see in a post-Brexit world.

The latest FSB report, Keep Trade Easy: what small firms want from Brexit, shows that the top priority market for small firms is still the EU single market (63%). Nearly half (49%) of FSB members chose the US as a priority market and one in three (29%) named Australia. Other key markets include China (28%) and Canada (23%).

Researchers also polled FSB members about their views on future UK-EU tariffs. One in four (27%) exporting small firms said they would be genuinely deterred from trading with the EU should any tariff - no matter how low - be introduced.

Should the UK find itself trading with the EU under World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules alone, exporters would face the EU's most-favoured-nation tariffs. One in three SME exporters say they would be deterred from trading with the EU if a tariff rate between 2% and 4% was introduced (the range within which the EU's average applied tariff tends to have fallen over the past few years).

The findings also show that small business exporters and importers also find non-tariff barriers (such as administrative burdens in dealing with customs) as important as tariffs.

At present, 58% of smaller firms find the EU single market easier to trade with than non-EU markets; the report also reveals that 45% of current exporters and 53% of current importers find trading with the EU single market cheaper than trading with non-EU markets - compared to only 9% and 8% respectively who find it more expensive.

Mike Cherry, FSB national chairman, said: "Small firms trade with countries based on ease, cost and value and any future trade deal must deliver on these key aspects both with the EU single market and non-EU markets. The reality is that the EU single market is still a crucial market for smaller firms and cannot be undervalued."

Cherry called for a new customs arrangement with the EU that allows for "frictionless" cross-border trade. He said: "The impact of potential tariffs and non-tariff barriers to trade with the EU is shown to be a real concern for small businesses trading overseas, at the very time that the UK economy can least afford to see a slowdown in exports. FSB calls on the Government to secure the easiest and least costly access to the EU single market in the Brexit negotiations."

Our round-up of other small business stories making the headlines this week...

Hammond u-turns on National Insurance risesThe increases in Class 4 National Insurance Contributions (NICs) announced in the Budget have been dropped after the Government came under pressure from the self-employed, business groups and its own backbenchers.

Chancellor of the exchequer Philip Hammond has been accused of breaking a general election manifesto commitment not to put up National Insurance, income tax or VAT.

Hammond said: "It is very important both to me and to the prime minister that we are compliant not just with the letter, but also the spirit of the commitments that were made. In the light of what has emerged as a clear view among colleagues and a significant section of the public, I have decided not to proceed with the Class 4 NIC measure set out in the budget."

The Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) described the news as a "victory for our economy's strivers and risk-takers".

Mike Cherry, FSB national chairman, said: "We've consistently argued, since this measure was announced last week, that a tax-grab on the genuine self-employed - the hairdresser, electricians and plumbers - makes absolutely no sense."

The FSB lobbied against the measure on the grounds that self-employed workers do not enjoy the same benefits as salaried employees. This week, the FSB published a list of 37 specific problems that the self-employed face. They include:

  • Insecurity/volatility of income;
  • Poor access to mortgages;
  • No redundancy pay;
  • No access to pensions auto-enrolment;
  • No employer pension contributions;
  • No maternity pay, paternity pay or adoption pay;
  • No rights against unfair dismissal;
  • No holiday pay or right to notice;
  • No sick pay, compassionate leave or carers' leave;
  • Late payment and unfair contract terms from big business;
  • High cost of tax administration.

FSB national chairman Mike Cherry said: "The risks that the self-employed face makes them fundamentally different to employees."

The Taylor review is due to report on modern employment practices, including the needs of the self-employed, in the Summer.

Are your employees a security risk?A third of companies say they have experienced a data loss or breach as a direct result of mobile working.

Research conducted by Vanson Bourne for Apricorn has found that 48% of companies polled say employees are one of their biggest security risks, 29% have already experienced a data loss or breach as a direct result of mobile working and 44% expect that mobile workers will expose them to risk in the future.

Overall, 70% of IT decision-makers say securing corporate data is an on-going battle. Over half of those polled (53%) said that managing all of the technology that employees need and use for mobile working is too complex and 35% said technology for secure mobile working is too expensive.

One in ten companies, regardless of size, don't have a strategy that covers removable media, such as USB sticks. Despite some having security policies for mobile working, 68% say they cannot be certain that their data is adequately secured when employees work remotely or on mobile devices. According to Apricorn, encryption is the best way to protect valuable data but only a third of those surveyed say they enforce hardware and software encryption of their data.

"Whilst data protection is not a straightforward task, companies (particularly those in the private sector) are trusted by their customers to follow basic best practices," said Jon Fielding, managing director of Apricorn EMEA. "Organisational struggles with enforcing data protection regulations and compliance standards are putting confidential data at risk. The repercussions associated with a data breach are huge, both in terms of financial and reputational damage."

In 2018, the European General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) comes into force. The survey found a lack of awareness amongst UK companies when it comes to the GDPR requirements. "Companies will need to ensure personal data of European citizens is secure but, disturbingly, 24% of the surveyed organisations are not even aware of the GDPR and its implications," said Fielding. "On top of this, 17% are aware of the regulations, but don't have a plan for ensuring compliance."

When asked about the greatest security risk to their organisation in 2017, 51% cited outdated software, followed by employees (48%) and the cloud (40%). More than a third of those surveyed said BYOD and mobile working were among the biggest liabilities.

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