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The Locum: Will the tax reform damage my working life?

"Locums are the lubricant smoothing the operation of everything else"

Could IR35 tax reforms affect some of the benefits of self-employment and make contractors suffer, The Locum asks

In this world, nothing can be said to be certain except for death, taxes, and poor-to-zero supply of hormone replacement therapy products. At first glance, a blog on taxes might not be the most thrilling of topics. But proposed changes to tax legislation for self-employed workers (ie locums) could have profound consequences for all of us in community pharmacy. Is there a chance the changes will adversely impact us self-employed people, who already lack some of the benefits of being on the payroll?

I work as a locum pharmacist, and am paid per hour. I don't get a contract of employment, holiday or sick pay, job security, or pension contributions, among other things. I do this partly because it gives me flexibility in when and where I work, partly because it means I don't have any terrifying managerial responsibilities keeping me awake at night, and mostly because as someone who is notoriously difficult to work for, alongside and with, I don't need to worry about a line manager or regional dogsbody telling me what to do.

I am my own boss, and if I work somewhere once and hate it – the time when two dispensers phoned in sick and the third turned up intoxicated springs to mind – I never have to go back. Equally, though, if I work somewhere once and am 'that locum who doesn't know how to seal a paper bag', they never need to employ me again.

I would love to tell you more about how the changes will affect you, and me for that matter, but the truth is that no one really knows. The process is still being consulted on, so nothing is certain yet. When I asked my accountant, she said: “Try and work for at least two different companies, in two different locations a month, and you should be fine.” “Should.” Perhaps I will tell her I “should” be able to pay her invoice sometime this year, and see how that goes down.

However, one of the features of the proposed changes that seems, at face value, to be a good thing, is that contractors will be responsible for ensuring the tax status of their locums is correct. Does this mean that by April 2020 I will no longer need an accountant? Probably not, but I am up for anything that makes paying the right amount of tax even slightly less complicated. There is a worry, however, that under this extra administrative burden, contractors who are already being squeezed hard will suffer. I really hope this does not turn out to be the case.

The pharmacy jobs market is nothing if not dynamic. There is a mix of contractors, locums, regular pharmacists and pharmacy managers. This mix is essential for ensuring adequate service provision and continuity of patient care. No one gets exactly what they want, but generally they get what they need. It’s a shifting equilibrium, not pretty or efficient, but necessary. In providing an extra pair of hands when required, and covering sickness and holidays, locums are the lubricant smoothing the operation of everything else.

Penalising self-employed people could have negative consequences for the provision of patient care, but is unlikely to seriously harm locums in the long run. The fact we do what we do demonstrates a certain adaptiveness, a resilience to change. If employment terms improve we might apply for a managerial position, if rates go down and we fall out of favour with contractors, we might all start writing for C+D. Equally, pharmacy managers and employers will do what is best for their business, and thus a balance will be struck.

We can all agree that while no one ought to be intentionally paying less tax than they should be, we would all rather not pay more tax than we need to. Everyone knows a locum with a, shall we say, creative accountant, who ends up slightly better off than us at the end of the tax year. This isn't big or clever in the long run, but to the detriment of society.

Clarity, if it prevents underpayment, ensures the rights of locums and more easily facilitates the provision of stable and affordable labour, should be welcomed on all sides. It won't be, though; no one ever likes the taxman.

The Locum has worked as a community pharmacist in more than 200 pharmacies

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