The rapid growth of self-employment has been a feature of the UK workforce in recent years. This is nothing new and no doubt you’ve read about it, but it’s worth looking at the numbers to put this into context. According to the Office for National Statistics, the number of people classified as self-employed increased from 3.3 million people in 2001 to 4.8 million in 2017. At the same time, the unemployment rate fell to 4.3% in the three months to November 2017, the lowest level since 1975.
However, the number classified as self-employed has been called into question following a court hearing in June of this year. A group of 65 Hermes couriers took the delivery service to a tribunal after they said they had been denied basic workers’ rights. The tribunal found that the couriers were not independent contractors, which Hermes claimed, but instead were workers entitled to rights such as the national living wage and holiday pay. The decision was described by the GMB union as a ‘landmark’ ruling.
Tim Roache, GMB general secretary, said: “This is yet another ruling that shows the gig economy for what it is – old-fashioned exploitation under a shiny new facade…not only will this judgement directly affect more than 14,000 Hermes couriers across the country, it’s another nail in the coffin of the exploitative bogus self-employment model which is increasingly rife across the UK.”
There are other examples which highlight the change in people’s working lives. At Saffron Building Society, we had what I would describe as a classic application from an NHS doctor. The applicant was a GP and worked for two surgeries with two separate fixed-term contracts. She also did locum work, out-of-hours work and work in A&E at the local hospital.
The individual had initially received a positive response from a mortgage broker, but soon found out that the complexity of her income was going to be a real problem with lenders. The broker couldn’t find someone willing to lend. We spoke to her after a second mortgage broker had encountered the same issues and was unable to secure a mortgage.
As the largest employer in the country, the NHS is an interesting case. Not only do they employ 1.5 million people but their remuneration structure is complicated. According to the Financial Reporter, doctors and nurses often combine their earnings between basic rate income, NHS bonus income and private practice work. Consultants, as an example, can be paid up to £77,000 in additional annual bonuses on top of their basic salary. In total, 22,800, some 52% of consultants in England received a bonus between £17,000 and £77,000 last year. And this is before the inclusion of extra earned income from private work on top of their NHS earnings. A sideline in private practice is a popular move amongst NHS doctors and nurses.
The implications are clear for the industry – there are a number of questions that we need to ask and issues we need to be prepared for:
1. Historic classifications of employment are becoming blurred. When is a self-employed person self-employed? Depending on who forms the next government, will the amount of ‘self-employed’ people shrink overnight due to legislative changes?
2. Is the industry able to operate in the same manner that it once did? Rather than classifications of mortgage products such as ‘contractor’ mortgages or ‘self-employed’ mortgages, will there just be ‘mortgages’? Will the decision be made after a more detailed look at the individual’s circumstances and history and will it replace the current process?
3. There is lots of talk in the industry about robo-advice and the rise of artificial intelligence. But are computers able to deal with the judgements required in an increasingly dynamic environment? The pace of change is unrelenting. Whilst computers can make decisions on many cases, will they be able to adapt at enough pace to make sense of the changing classifications and income streams?
4. As political uncertainty increases, will there be more volatility to come in house prices and the amount of people in work?
Alan Perlis was an American computer scientist who famously said the following about complexity:
“Fools ignore complexity. Pragmatists suffer it. Some can avoid it. Geniuses remove it.”
The industry is going to have to grapple with a highly complex landscape going forward. Whilst I’d like to sell myself as the genius who is going to remove it, I know in reality that this is a problem the industry is going to have to work hard to solve. Fools and pragmatists are going to have a difficult time and I don’t believe there is a way to avoid it.
At Saffron Building Society we use technology for straightforward applications, but ask our highly experienced underwriting team to analyse each and every referral from the system. This enables us to make judgements that others have been too nervous to take a decision on. We were able to accept the application from the NHS doctor. We’re pleased to help her secure her first home.
Whilst people are talking up the concept of robo-advice, I am of the view that experienced judgement from a human being, working alongside technology, will be the way forward. Whilst not removing complexity, it will be better able to deal with it.
Head of Mortgage Sales