What's behind the 367,000 new self-employed people?

It could be an outbreak of entrepreneurism, tax avoidance, or maybe just plain old unemployment

The strength of the UK labour market has been an on-going puzzle. Despite a 4 per cent drop in GDP, employment has risen, and more people are in work than in 2008. Yet the rise hasn’t been in full-time employee jobs. Part-time work has accounted for some of the increase, but most of it has been a result of self-employment. New figures released today (6 Feb) by the ONS show self-employment has grown by 367,000 since 2008, with the trend most pronounced amongst males and older workers.

So what’s behind this trend? There are a number of possible explanations. Ministers will no doubt claim it as a resurgence of entrepreneurialism, with new companies emerging from the ashes of the old economy. Yet this is unlikely, and few of the newly self-employed will be starting the Facebooks of tomorrow: 66,000 fewer self-employed workers are actually employing staff.

A second potential culprit is the Work Programme. Long-term unemployed jobseekers may be encouraged into self-employment by providers who are incentivised to get them off Jobseekers Allowance. However, this effect is unlikely to be significant enough to explain the overall trends: ERSA estimate that only 10% of those who have found work have entered self-employment. Assuming around 300,000 job starts, only 30,000 will be self-employed (even if all survive in self-employment).

A third explanation may be more significant: firms are shifting workers onto self-employed contracts to avoid paying National Insurance, holiday pay and benefits. Yet while such contracts are increasingly used in construction, the explanation doesn’t quite fit with the characteristics of many of the newly self-employed. Research by the TUC shows that the biggest rise in self-employment has been in professional occupations.

This leaves a fourth culprit looking increasingly guilty: the weak economy is pushing workers into self-employment. The evidence fits. Underemployment amongst the self-employed has increased from 6.4 per cent in 2008 to 10.8 per cent in 2010, and is now slightly above the rate for employees. So while some will find self-employment a good way to earn a living, for others the situation is decidedly bleaker. Professionals don’t want to be unemployed, so they become “self-employed” as a way of saving face.

The rise has been most pronounced for older workers, which is perhaps not all that surprising since this is the group with the most contacts, experience and start-up costs to move into work on their own. Some will also be deferring retirement to avoid the low value of pensions. Others will find self-employment an attractive alternative to a tough formal labour market.

So why does the rise in self-employment matter? Surely self-employment is better than unemployment?

Yet self-employment can be tough – many will be building up debt as they scrape along. And later this year, Universal Credit will be introduced. It will assume that the self-employed earn a certain amount, regardless of whether this is actually the case. Those with low incomes in self-employment will find they lose benefits. For many workers now, self-employment is tough. But it is likely to get tougher in the future.

Photograph: Getty Images

Neil is the Senior Economist at The Work Foundation

 

Getty
Show Hide image

What is the EU customs union and will Brexit make us leave?

International trade secretary Liam Fox's job makes more sense if we leave the customs union. 

Brexiteers and Remoaners alike have spent the winter months talking of leaving the "customs union", and how this should be weighed up against the benefits of controlling immigration. But what does it actually mean, and how is it different from the EU single market?

Imagine a medieval town, with a busy marketplace where traders are buying and selling wares. Now imagine that the town is also protected by a city wall, with guards ready to slap charges on any outside traders who want to come in. That's how the customs union works.  

In essence, a customs union is an agreement between countries not to impose tariffs on imports from within the club, and at the same time impose common tariffs on goods coming in from outsiders. In other words, the countries decide to trade collectively with each other, and bargain collectively with everyone else. 

The EU isn't the only customs union, or even the first in Europe. In the 19th century, German-speaking states organised the Zollverein, or German Customs Union, which in turn paved the way for the unification of Germany. Other customs unions today include the Eurasian Economic Union of central Asian states and Russia. The EU also has a customs union with Turkey.

What is special about the EU customs union is the level of co-operation, with member states sharing commercial policies, and the size. So how would leaving it affect the UK post-Brexit?

The EU customs union in practice

The EU, acting on behalf of the UK and other member states, has negotiated trade deals with countries around the world which take years to complete. The EU is still mired in talks to try to pull off the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the US, and a similar EU-Japan trade deal. These two deals alone would cover a third of all EU trade.

The point of these deals is to make it easier for the EU's exporters to sell abroad, keep imports relatively cheap and at the same time protect the member states' own businesses and consumers as much as possible. 

The rules of the customs union require member states to let the EU negotiate on their behalf, rather than trying to cut their own deals. In theory, if the UK walks away from the customs union, we walk away from all these trade deals, but we also get a chance to strike our own. 

What are the UK's options?

The UK could perhaps come to an agreement with the EU where it continues to remain inside the customs union. But some analysts believe that door has already shut. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as Prime Minister was to appoint Liam Fox, the Brexiteer, as the secretary of state for international trade. Why would she appoint him, so the logic goes, if there were no international trade deals to talk about? And Fox can only do this if the UK is outside the customs union. 

(Conversely, former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg argues May will realise the customs union is too valuable and Fox will be gone within two years).

Fox has himself said the UK should leave the customs union but later seemed to backtrack, saying it is "important to have continuity in trade".

If the UK does leave the customs union, it will have the freedom to negotiate, but will it fare better or worse than the EU bloc?

On the one hand, the UK, as a single voice, can make speedy decisions, whereas the EU has a lengthy consultative process (the Belgian region of Wallonia recently blocked the entire EU-Canada trade deal). Incoming US President Donald Trump has already said he will try to come to a deal quickly

On the other, the UK economy is far smaller, and trade negotiators may discover they have far less leverage acting alone. 

Unintended consequences

There is also the question of the UK’s membership of the World Trade Organisation, which is currently governed by its membership of the customs union. According to the Institute for Government: “Many countries will want to be clear about the UK’s membership of the WTO before they open negotiations.”

And then there is the question of policing trade outside of the customs union. For example, if it was significantly cheaper to import goods from China into Ireland, a customs union member, than Northern Ireland, a smuggling network might emerge.

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.