The main thrust of the story, seen from Philip's involvement, is how a group of unconnected contractors used technology to band together and orchestrate what was probably the first internet lobbying and media campaign. (See: The story of the early days of the PCG and IR35 - Shout99, June 2012)
The book has met with mixed reactions, Philip has received messages of good luck, requests from contractors to know if their individual efforts at the time had been included, and emails from a fewsenior PCG members who were less than happy with the publication of the book - before they had even read it.
This week Shout99 will be summarising some of the episodes in the book which charts the contractors political and legal battle against IR35. Today we look at the genesis of the PCG and 'Contractor Wednesday'.
IR35 and the beginning of the PCGThe book explains that IR35 was a significant piece of tax legislation that the 1999 Budget estimated to raise around £450-£900m a year in revenue. It didn't get a mention in the Budget speech, instead it was relegated to the 35th press release from the Inland Revenue, so in the top corner, by way of reference, it said IR35. The press release and commentary around it suggested that the target was ‘kitchen fitters’ and workers who left their jobs on Fridays only to return on Monday as freelancers. In actual fact its target was freelance IT workers. It took a while for anyone to find it, but once they did news about it spread like wild fire.
In short, it said that anyone running a business but operating in a way typically used byknowledge-based contractors could be treated as a 'disguised employee' and taxed as such. In simple terminology, their business turnover would be taxed as if it was their personal income.
At the time one of the very few working communities that was connected to both the internet and email were IT workers, the primary group which would be affected IR35. They turned to their preferred method of communication to find out what it was all about.
The key information site they all settled on was one run by ex-contractor Andy White, who had built a large and succesful business on the back of his own contracting work. Here, information was quickly exchanged and spleens were vented. Overwhelmed by the traffic and requests for information Andy White formulated a business plan and put it to his mailing list. He asked for 2,000 contractors to pledge £50 over a weekend, if he hit that number he'd co-ordinate and action a campaign, if not he'd return to his business interests. He went mountain biking that weekend, returned and found 2,002 emails from contractors pledging £50. The target had been reached - just - and so the campaign and the Professional Contractors Group was formed.
Armed with resources, White hired a public affairs expert; a press officer and a specialist accountant. Word spread and contractors flocked to join the new 'virtual' campaign group. They used their technological and analytical expertise to punch above their weight and exert influence in a very short period of time.
One of the best examples of how the internet was used to - literally - mobilise opposition was what has become known as 'Contractor Wednesday' and which was possibly the first 'flash mob'.
The legislation was passing through Parliament and was due to be heard again in the House of Commons, after the House of Lords had effectively voted the IR35 out of the Bill. It was expected that the Commons would push to reinstate it on Wednesday November 3, 1999. On the Friday before, the PCG team decided to use a little-known lobbying tool called 'The Green Card'. This was a facility where an individual could visit the House of Commons, go to Central Lobby, fill in a 'green card' with a request to meet their MP, pass it to the Sergeants-at-Arms, who would then try to find the MP in question. If the MP was available, they would have an impromptu meeting with their constituent.
The PCG team sent an email asking if any contractors were available, prepared to travel to London, lose a day's fees and try to have a personal meeting with their MP to press their own case against what IR35 meant for their business.
With 72 hours notice, the PCG hoped a couple of dozen contractors might turn up and booked a few tables in a local pub for a meet-up afterwards.
In the event, over 800 contractors turned up, Green Cards flew around the Parliamentary chamber, the Sergeant-at-Arms were confused at the numbers and not too pleased, a much larger room had to be found as Tory Opposition spokesman, Francis Maude, held an impromptu meeting, and Tony Blair faced a run-in over IR35 with William Hague in Prime Minister's Question Time.
Those who did turn up met with mixed receptions from their MPs. Some were treated to tea and biscuits in the House of Commons cafeteria; others had quick tours of the House; some had 'a frank exchange of views' and others were ignored - but everyone felt they had played an active part.
Where you one of those who turned up at 'Contractor Wednesday'?
Copies are available, price £22.50 online here
There is also a blogspot with further information about the book.
There is a short youtube trailer.
Preview a copy of the opening pages (you may need to click preview) here
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Susie Hughes © Shout99 2012