I’D like to thank Tracy Brabin, Labour’s Shadow Minister for Early Years and the MP for Batley and Spen, for bringing to the Government’s attention my own key concerns for the Budget – family and work.
She has called for Shared Parental Leave (SPL) to be extended to the self-employed. This would mean that mothers and fathers who work for themselves could benefit from the same privileges as those who are employed by the NHS, local authorities and pretty much any decent-sized company or organisation.
They would be able to share this leave between themselves; their families would be cared for and their businesses would survive the shock of taking time off.
If you’re reading this and worrying only about the cost of a pint going up this lunchtime, you’ll probably think Ms Brabin’s plea represents yet another working woman whingeing that life’s not fair.
That is where you would be wrong. Her campaign crystallises the two things most dear to my heart and to the hearts of millions of other parents too. We’re the self-employed mums and dads who work for our families more or less every day. We’ve taken the brave decision to go it alone, often – and ironically – because we have put our children first.
The choice I took five years ago to become totally self-employed had my children’s happiness and welfare at its heart. Since they were babies, I’d combined my journalism with teaching media at a university two or three days a week. This meant leaving the house at 6.30am some mornings and not returning until 12 hours later.
My son, who is now 16, remembers that he was always the last child to be collected from his (extortionate) day nursery. However, as Jack and his sister Lizzie grew older, I began to realise that they needed me more than anyone else did.
So almost five years ago, I took the difficult step to resign my teaching post, wave goodbye to paid holidays, sick pay, compassionate leave and a generous pension scheme and rely entirely on my own wits. I became what’s known as a sole trader. So I’m effectively a one-woman small business, and my partner, a builder, is self-employed too.
Contrary to what some people think – usually those who speak from the comfort of a secure, salaried position – most self-employed workers do not fiddle their expenses or invent figures for the taxman. Rather, we’re subject to an extremely rigorous HMRC regime and we have to file and present to the accountant all our receipts, utility bills and proof of income.
We also have to conjure up large sums of money to pay our tax bills, often relying on clients who will go to great lengths to prolong paying what they owe. And in our case, we don’t claim any other welfare payments except the child benefit we’re entitled to.
I’m not complaining. I’m lucky to have my family and I won’t be having any more children. However, my heart goes out to any other parent in the same position as I was back then. The Government says that is committed to backing both entrepreneurship and family values. Yet it continues to punish those who seek to combine the two.
As Ms Brabin points out, nearly five million people in the UK are now working for themselves. This is not just journalists and builders, two of the most mistrusted and reviled professions incidentally, but shopkeepers, IT consultants, café owners, private tutors and anyone who is obliged to manage their employment on a short-term contract basis. I think if the bigger picture was taken into account, the true figure would be far north of five million.
However, if you are self-employed, you can only access maternity allowance – not full maternity pay or shared parental leave. I know from younger mothers that the process of claiming what usually amounts to a very paltry three-figure ‘allowance’ is also torturous and demands a consistently high level of National Insurance contributions.
Instead of enjoying flexible parental leave options, self-employed people have no choice other than to take 39 weeks off with only 10 ‘keeping in touch days’ to keep their businesses ticking over. This is extremely damaging because very few self-employed people can afford to take 39 weeks off without losing clients and, therefore, income.
“For many, it is near-impossible to maintain client relations and other key businesses commitments in just 10 short days,” says Ms Brabin. “Instead, many self-employed people cut their leave short and, clearly, this is a problem.”
Yes, it is. Ask my daughter, who spent the first few months of her life strapped across my chest in a baby sling whilst I typed. I know we all have to follow the rules, but it seems to me that anything a self-employed person asks for is doled out grudgingly with a generous helping of mind-bending form-filling and hoop-jumping. I’d like the Chancellor to know this. If he can’t help us today, he might note for future reference that an army of five million-plus workers adds up to a hell of a lot of votes.