Personal aside: one plug, one whinge.

Stepping away from professional life for a minute: my favourite online piano tutor has an offer running, which I’d jump at if I wasn’t already a subscriber. And the new UK self-employment support scheme? New barristers may get nothing. And pay loads…

Two quick things. One I hope is useful. The other is – I admit – basically a complaint.

The good stuff first. I mentioned Jazzedge, the jazz (and other stuff) piano tuition site I subscribe to. Willie Myette, who runs it, has now discounted a cut-down subscription to a subset of the site. He’s charging about $120 a year (paid in one go) for it. The discount lasts till (I think) 6pm on Wednesday 1st April.

I’ve checked, and it includes about 80% of everything I’ve looked at yet, and an order of magnitude more of stuff I haven’t got to. If you’re really good already, this probably isn’t for you. But if like me you mess about, try your best but really need help to get better, go for it if you can spare the cash. (And I recognise for us all right now, that’s a real and agonising question. But there’s a 14-day trial during which as I understand it you can cancel and get your money back.)

Now the whinge. As with the whole self-employed bar, I’d been awaiting news of the Government’s self-employment income support scheme. For anyone working pretty close to full time, who was doing so before the current tax year, and made less than £50k in taxable profits then averaged across up to the previous three years, it’s… not bad. Not perfect, but what is? The big issue for these people will be waiting possibly till June to be paid. And that, admittedly, is a HUGE issue.

(The unspoken question is: why do it this way? Complex, exclusionary, difficult. And to my mind no more appreciably fraud-proof than simpler alternatives. See below.)

But that leaves out more people than you’d imagine. For instance:

  • Like with the child tax credit clawback, if your profit was £51k and your spouse doesn’t work, or was employed but has been made redundant, or any number of other scenarios, you’re screwed. Not a penny. But if you each made a £49k profit, you’re golden. £5k for your family a month. That’s just wrong.
  • If you work through a company – often (for broadcasters) because the BBC and other commissioning bodies won’t work with you otherwise – and you don’t pay yourself a salary (and even if you are, aren’t prepared to down tools and do nothing at all. Not business development, nothing. Which is suicide for a small business), then you’re out too.
  • Anyone who’s been diligently building up a side hustle for years but went into full-time entrepreneurialism in the past 18 months or so. Because if your 2018-19 tax return was less than 50% self-employed income, nothing for you.
  • That last one will hit a lot of new barristers, those who were pupils last year. (Myself included.) Most of us have only a month or two of self-employed taxable profits for 2018-19 – but if we had employment earnings for April-September 2018 which exceed that already small amount, that’s us out too.

Yeah, I know. I’m whingeing. But there’s the sting in the tail: the threat from Rishi Sunak to up our National Insurance rates. We self-employed people currently pay £3 a week in Class 2 contributions, and 9% in Class 4 on all taxable profits between £8,632 and £50k. Above that, Class 4 is 2%.

For employees, it’s 12% (the floor and ceiling are not quite identical, but within a couple of dozen quid, so let’s keep it simple).

Here’s the sting. Their employers pay 13.5%. And there’s no ceiling.

So what’s Rishi saying?

  • That we get to pay an extra 3% on Class 4 – effectively a basic-rate rise of 3 pence in the pound? (If so, you can start giving us statutory sick pay when we have to cancel hearings owing to throwing up or otherwise being incapacitated.) And other support mechanisms when we have a dip in our workflow. I’m not just talking about barristers here – Class 4 is lower for self-employed people because we get less. Pay more, entitled to more. Fair’s fair.
  • Or that we’re effectively going to get a rise in tax across the board of 13.5 percentage points? I actually can’t believe this can be what he means. Please, someone, tell me it isn’t.

Anyway, we don’t know. (Well, I don’t. Far smarter employment barristers like my friend and colleague Daniel Barnett will know better than I do…)

And all of this ignores the big point: that there may have been a simpler alternative. I’m not an economist, and am happy (oops) to be shouted down by those who know more than me. But except on ideological grounds – the determination to rule out the idea as socialism-by-the-backdoor – why not provide a temporary universal basic income, and then claw it back on the basis of future tax returns on a means-tested basis? Far easier to implement, doesn’t have built-in injustices which always come with hard ceilings and past tax records, and still allows you to get a chunk of the cash back later.

I’m aware of the fraud risks. Honest – I’ve been a counter-fraud specialist for most of the past two decades. I know this will, at least in basic terms, have been risk assessed. And any system like this, introduced in these circumstances, is going to be prone to fraud. But I’m not at all convinced that what I’ve described is any less risky in these terms than the one they’ve gone with.

Seriously. Tell me. Why would this be a bad idea right now?

Staying sane

Lots of people know more than I do about this. This is just what’s keeping me going.

I’m lucky.

I’ve always worked remotely. So while this situation imposes stresses, they’re not entirely the shock of the new. And some might say that at the Bar we’re a rather solitary trade anyway.

But life’s changed nonetheless. Our whole family, including our 13-year-old daughter, are all stuck in here together. We’re going to annoy each other.

And while I might not have stuck my head round someone’s door in Chambers every day, knowing that now I can’t is something that hurts.

All told: we’re all going to need ways of keeping our heads on straight. Particularly given that there’s no clear end-date in sight.

I’ll leave the ways of keeping in professional contact for another day, and for the purposes of this post stick to a few things that I think work for me. Again, everyone’s mileage varies. I’m not a psychiatrist, a therapist, a counsellor or anyone else with the slightest right to talk about anyone’s mental health than my own. But it might give you an idea or two.

  • Firstly, don’t just sit. If – like me – you have a laptop on a platform, for heaven’s sake push your chair back and stand up to work at it once in a while. Your back will love you. If you’re flash enough to have a standing desk, then you’re well ahead of me. Good on you.
  • Further on that – goodness knows we’re a profession that can tend to swivel-chair spread. And if you usually commuted by public transport, you’ve probably lost several thousand steps a day by staying at home. So get up, and get out. Until – and god forbid it comes to that – there’s a genuine lockdown, going for a walk, a run, a ride, a whatever, will work wonders both for health and sanity. In fact, there’ll probably be fewer vehicles moving about – so the air will be cleaner and the roads safer. Make the most of it.
  • Better yet, find some form of exercise you can do. I play capoeira, a Brazilian martial art which is just about the most full-body form of exercise imaginable. (I play it badly. But I still love it.) My school, Brazilarte, has had to close its doors like other gyms and suchlike – but it’s running online training. For £20 a month, this is nothing short of a bargain. Find yourself something similar.
  • From the physical to the life of the mind and the soul… As a profession, we can tend towards the obsessive. So this is the perfect time to find something you can practise and perfect – or at least try to. Fallen behind on Duolingo, Drops or Memrise? Take a break from work (ad hoc or on a schedule – whichever works for you) and learn a language. For me it’s Portuguese. Or Korean. (Although I try to avoid the K-drama fest on Netflix. That’s a rabbit hole you’ll never get out of.) Or Gaelic. (Actually, Netflix can help with this – once you’ve downed tools of an evening, there’s a Google Chrome extension which allows you to pause, repeat and play back subtitles. Excellent. Again, watch out for the rabbit hole though…)
  • If you’re a musician, this is the perfect time to practise. I play the piano. Sort of. Ish. But I’m now practising more. If jazz is your thing (as it is mine), then there’s a wonderful guy in the US called Willie Myette. His site, Jazzedge, isn’t cheap – $349 a year or $39 a month – but it’s full of truly eye-opening video lessons and tuition. I gave it to myself as a birthday present late last year, and it’s been worth every cent several times over already. If you’re a beginner, Willie has just made the starter course on his beginning piano lesson site – Home School Piano – free till 1 September. Just sign up and go. Lovely man. I’m sure there are equivalents, and free resources, elsewhere for both the piano and other instruments. Go for it. But remember the neighbours if you decide to take the violin or trumpet up from scratch…

Finally, one more thing. We spend our lives immersed in the written word, and we might want to escape it when we step away from our desks. But novels are freedom for the heart and mind. Doesn’t matter if they’re deep or trashy, literary or genre. (Or all the above at the same time.) If you’re not already into ebooks, start now. You don’t need a Kindle, a Kobo or whatever. There’ll be an app for your phone or tablet. Go for it. Don’t starve your soul, people. Let it fly.